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Posts Tagged ‘engineering

“The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ but ‘That’s funny’”*…

 

Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin is commonly used as an example of serendipity in science

Scientific folklore is full of tales of accidental discovery, from the stray Petri dish that led Alexander Fleming to discover penicillin to Wilhelm Röntgen’s chance detection of X-rays while tinkering with a cathode-ray tube.

That knowledge often advances through serendipity is how scientists, sometimes loudly, justify the billions of dollars that taxpayers plough into curiosity-driven research each year. And it is the reason some argue that increasing government efforts to control research — with an eye to driving greater economic or social impact — are at best futile and at worst counterproductive.

But just how important is serendipity to science? Scientists debating with policymakers have long relied on anecdotal evidence. Studies rarely try to quantify how much scientific progress was truly serendipitous, how much that cost or the circumstances in which it emerged.

Serendipity can take on many forms, and its unwieldy web of cause and effect is difficult to constrain. Data are not available to track it in any meaningful way. Instead, academic research has focused on serendipity in science as a philosophical concept.

The European Research Council aims to change that…

On the heels of yesterday’s post on the history of dice, and the way they evolved over the centuries to be “fairer”– to favor chance– another post on luck…  more specifically in this case, on whether it’s all that it’s cracked up to be.  Scientists often herald the role of chance in research; a project in Britain aims to test that popular idea with evidence: “The serendipity test.”

* Isaac Asimov

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As we contemplate contingency, we might send elaborately-engineered birthday greetings to George Washington Gale Ferris Jr.; he was born on this date in 1859.  An engineer and inventor, he had built a successful career testing and inspecting metals for railroads and bridge builders when…

… in 1891, the directors of the World’s Columbian Exposition [to be held in 1893] issued a challenge to American engineers to conceive of a monument for the fair that would surpass the Eiffel Tower, the great structure of the Paris International Exposition of 1889. The planners wanted something “original, daring and unique.” Ferris responded with a proposed wheel from which visitors would be able to view the entire exhibition, a wheel that would “Out-Eiffel Eiffel.” The planners feared his design for a rotating wheel towering over the grounds could not possibly be safe.

Ferris persisted. He returned in a few weeks with several respectable endorsements from established engineers, and the committee agreed to allow construction to begin. Most convincingly, he had recruited several local investors to cover the $400,000 cost of construction. The planning commission of the Exposition hoped that admissions from the Ferris Wheel would pull the fair out of debt and eventually make it profitable. [source]

It carried 2.5 million passengers before it was finally demolished in 1906.  But while the Fair’s promoters hopes were fulfilled– the Ferris Wheel was a windfall– Ferris claimed that the exhibition management had robbed him and his investors of their rightful portion of the nearly $750,000 profit that his wheel brought in.  Ferris spent two years in litigation, trying (unsuccessfully) to recover his investment.  He died despondent and nearly bankrupt (reportedly of typhoid, though some suggest that it was suicide) in 1896.

The original 1893 Chicago Ferris Wheel

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Written by LW

February 14, 2018 at 1:01 am

“We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us”*…

 

Bell Labs engineer Billy Klüver working on Oracle (1965), a collaboration with Robert Rauschenberg

Since it was first set-up in 1907, Bell Labs has been at the forefront of scientific invention. During its peak, work undertaken at the labs led to the invention of the laser and the transistor, the birth of information theory and the creation of C, S and C++ programming languages, which form the basis of coding today. Bell Labs has been awarded a total of eight Nobel Peace prizes and every Silicon Valley start-up or global conglomerate has mined the mythology around its unique ability to foster new ideas for clues as to how one research laboratory could consistently turn out such an array of successful technologies…

During the 1960s and 1970s… Bell Labs turned the research centre into a playground for the likes of John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg and most of New York’s Lower East Side art scene…

The extraordinary tale of EAT (Experiments in Art and Technology), engineer Billy Klüver’s attempt to “make technology more human”– at “How AT&T shaped modern art.”

Then, by way of sampling the results, check out “9 Evenings,” a 1965 project exploring avant-garde theatre, dance and new technologies. Artists John Cage, Lucinda Childs, Öyvind Fahlström, Alex Hay, Deborah Hay, Steve Paxton, Yvonne Rainer, Robert Rauschenberg, David Tudor and Robert Whitman each worked with a Bell Labs engineer to create an original performance.

(AT&T is, of course, long gone; but Bell Labs lives on as part of Nokia– and EAT continues.)

* Marshall McLuhan

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As we celebrate collaboration, we might email elegantly and creatively designed birthday greetings to Douglas Carl Engelbart; he was born on this date in 1925.  An engineer and inventor who was a computing and internet pioneer, Doug is best remembered for his seminal work on human-computer interface issues, and for “the Mother of All Demos” in 1968, at which he demonstrated for the first time the computer mouse, hypertext, networked computers, and the earliest versions of graphical user interfaces… that’s to say, computing as we know it, and all that computing enables.

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“It is not enough for code to work”*…

 

It’s been said that software is “eating the world.” More and more, critical systems that were once controlled mechanically, or by people, are coming to depend on code. This was perhaps never clearer than in the summer of 2015, when on a single day, United Airlines grounded its fleet because of a problem with its departure-management system; trading was suspended on the New York Stock Exchange after an upgrade; the front page of The Wall Street Journal’s website crashed; and Seattle’s 911 system went down again, this time because a different router failed. The simultaneous failure of so many software systems smelled at first of a coordinated cyberattack. Almost more frightening was the realization, late in the day, that it was just a coincidence…

Our standard framework for thinking about engineering failures—reflected, for instance, in regulations for medical devices—was developed shortly after World War II, before the advent of software, for electromechanical systems. The idea was that you make something reliable by making its parts reliable (say, you build your engine to withstand 40,000 takeoff-and-landing cycles) and by planning for the breakdown of those parts (you have two engines). But software doesn’t break… Software failures are failures of understanding, and of imagination…

Invisible– but all too real and painful– problems, and the attempts to make them visible: “The Coming Software Apocalypse.”

* Robert C. Martin, Clean Code: A Handbook of Agile Software Craftsmanship

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As we Code for America, we might recall that it was on this date in 1983 that Microsoft released its first software application, Microsoft Word 1.0.  For use with MS-DOS compatible systems, Word was the first word processing software to make extensive use of a computer mouse. (Not coincidentally, Microsoft had released a computer mouse for IBM-compatible PCs earlier in the year.)  A free demo version of Word was included with the current edition of PC World—  the first time a floppy disk was included with a magazine.

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Written by LW

September 29, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Crying won’t help you, praying won’t do you no good…When the levee breaks, mama, you got to move”*…

 

Your correspondent is headed off to his daughter’s graduation– a process rather lengthier and more complex than in the distant past, when he “walked.”  Posts will resume on or around June 1.  In the meantime, Gaudeamus Igitur, y’all

The levees of the 1920s were about six times as high as their earlier predecessors, but really no more effective. In a sense, they had been an empirical experiment — in aggregate, fifteen hundred miles of trial and error.

— John McPhee, The Control of Nature

Last month, the United States issued Patent No. 9,000,000 (for a rainwater-harvesting windshield washer). Every patent tells a story, and a virtual tour through the archive offers a remarkable view of American society, policy, industry, and environment. Here we find technologies that shape a nation but many more machines that fail and ideas that never catch on. Yet to regard the patent office merely as a protectionist legal institution or a hall of curiosities is a mistake, for if every lost invention represents an alternate history, it also contains the seeds of a possible future.

This is especially true for patents granted for Mechanical Engineers, under the Department of Interior in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the infrastructures that supported national expansion were being developed, tested, and improved. Consider the history of attempts to control and modify American rivers, culminating in the vast levee systems that transformed the Mississippi River Basin and Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta, opening vital transportation corridors and buildable lands while devastating riparian and coastal ecosystems. Behind every mainstream levee technology — every dragline excavator and clamshell dredge — there is a host of forgotten and highly speculative inventions that would have produced a very different landscape: the levees that might have been…

Alternative history at “Levees That Might Have Been- A history of forgotten inventions that would have produced a very different landscape along American rivers.”

* Robert Plant/Led Zeppelin

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As we watch the water rise, we might send wonderfully worded birthday greetings to William Whewell; he was born on this date in 1794.  One of the 19th Century’s most remarkable polymaths, Whewell, Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, was a scientist (crystallographer, meteorologist), philosopher, theologian, and historian of science,  But he is best remembered for his wordsmithing:  He created the words scientist and physicist by analogy with the word artist; they soon replaced the older term natural philosopher. He coined other useful words to help his friends: biometry for John Lubbock; Eocine, Miocene and Pliocene for Charles Lyell; and for Michael Faraday, anode, cathode, diamagnetic, paramagnetic, and ion (whence the sundry other particle names ending -ion).

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Written by LW

May 24, 2015 at 1:01 am

“No one has yet tested the pencil/To see how many words it can write”*…

 

Johnny Gamber cares about pencils– so much so that he’s into his tenth year of blogging about them.  Fellow lovers of lead (and of superior sharpeners, stationery, erasers, and the like) will want to head over to his site: Pencil Revolution.

(Readers might also want to luxuriate in Henry Petroski’s glorious paean, The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance.)

* Xi Chuan, Notes on the Mosquito: Selected Poems

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As we crank the sharpener, we might recall that it was on this date in 1811, in Arnold, Nottinghamshire, that the angry textile artisans attacked a textile factory– the first of the Luddite Riots.

The Luddite movement emerged during the harsh economic climate of the Napoleonic Wars, when stocking frames, spinning frames, and power looms introduced during the Industrial Revolution threatened to replace the artisans with less-skilled, low-wage laborers. Although the origin of the name “Luddite” is uncertain, a popular theory is that the movement was named after Ned Ludd, who allegedly smashed two stocking frames in 1779, and whose name had become emblematic of those who fight against technology that eliminates traditional jobs (or culture).

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Written by LW

March 11, 2015 at 1:01 am

An Honest Living…

 

This print of a clockmaker is the work of Jost Amman (1533-1591), Swiss book illustrator and one of the last major production artists working with woodcuts.  While it’s unlikely that Amman set out to catalog all of the jobs of his time, he did record them, and with great clarity.  The result is a set of 16th-century pre-photographic “snapshots” of the ways in which people conducted their business and livelihood– an Alphabet of Trades.

Barber/Surgeon

Thong Maker

His illustrations were in collaboration with with Hans Sachs for Eygentliche Beschreibung Aller Staende Auff Erden, published in Frankfurt am Main in 1568.  (The full text here is from Bibliothek des Seminars für Wirtschafts und Sozialgeschichte;  another useful full-text here indexes the images; and another here provides an English indexing of the trades).

More examples of Amman’s work at “Towards an Alphabet of Trades–“Snapshots” from 1568.”  (C.F. also, Medieval Occupations.)

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As we punch in, we might spare a thought for Washington Augustus Roebling; he died on this date in 1926.  A civil engineer by training, he worked with his father, John Augustus Roebling, on the design of the Brooklyn Bridge; on his father’s death in 1869, Washington oversaw the completion of construction of the bridge– for twenty years from its opening in 1883, the longest suspension bridge in the world.  (In 1872, he was disabled by decompression illness suffered in a caisson used in the construction; from that time on, he was directed operations from his home in Brooklyn overlooking the site.)

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Written by LW

July 21, 2013 at 1:01 am

Infographics to live by…

 

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[TotH to KJMc]

 

As we consider ourselves handy, we might recall that it was on this date in 1969 that Spiro T. Agnew, then Richard Nixon’s Vice President, emerged as the face of the Administration’s aggressive “best defense is a good offense” strategy of response to critics.

Agnew had already given other tough speeches, lambasting “liberal intellectuals” and labeling anti-Vietnam War protestors “impudent snobs.”  But 42 years ago on this date, Agnew delivered a talk in Des Moines, written for him by Nixon’s own speech writer, Patrick Buchanan, blasting the national news media– the television networks– as an unelected elite with “a virtual monopoly of a whole medium of communication.”  The wide coverage of his talk encouraged Agnew to amp up the invective; thus, subsequent speeches gave the language such phrases as “nattering nabobs of negativism.”

Agnew relished his celebrity, and was tolerated in it by Nixon:  as the clouds of Watergate gathered, Agnew was, Nixon noted, “impeachment insurance”; no one, Nixon believed, wanted to remove him if it meant elevating Agnew to the presidency.  And indeed, the U.S. Senate’s history site suggests, it was effective insurance… at least, until Agnew was caught up in a bribery and corruption scandal dating from his days as a Maryland politician, and was forced to resign as part of his plea deal.

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Written by LW

November 13, 2011 at 1:01 am

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