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Posts Tagged ‘engineering

“I love to talk about nothing. It’s the only thing I know anything about.”*…



The computer you’re reading this article on right now runs on a binary — strings of zeros and ones. Without zero, modern electronics wouldn’t exist. Without zero, there’s no calculus, which means no modern engineering or automation. Without zero, much of our modern world literally falls apart.

Humanity’s discovery of zero was “a total game changer … equivalent to us learning language,” says Andreas Nieder, a cognitive scientist at the University of Tübingen in Germany.

But for the vast majority of our history, humans didn’t understand the number zero. It’s not innate in us. We had to invent it. And we have to keep teaching it to the next generation.

Other animals, like monkeys, have evolved to understand the rudimentary concept of nothing. And scientists just reported that even tiny bee brains can compute zero. But it’s only humans that have seized zero and forged it into a tool.

So let’s not take zero for granted. Nothing is fascinating. Here’s why…

It is indeed fascinating, as you’ll see at “The mind-bendy weirdness of the number zero, explained.”

Pair with: “Is a hole a real thing, or just a place where something isn’t?” and with The Ministry of Ideas’ podcast “Nothing Matters.”

* Oscar Wilde


As we obsess about absence, we might box a dome-shaped birthday cake for inventor, educator, author, philosopher, engineer, and architect R(ichard) Buckminster Fuller; he was born on this date in 1895.  “Bucky” most famously developed the geodesic dome, the only large dome that can be set directly on the ground as a complete structure, and the only practical kind of building that has no limiting dimensions (i.e., beyond which the structural strength must be insufficient).  But while he never got around to frankfurters, he was sufficiently prolific to have scored over 2,000 patents.

“Fullerenes” (molecules composed entirely of carbon, in the form of a hollow spheres, ellipsoids, or tubes), key components in many nanotechnology applications, were named for Fuller, as their structure mimes that of the geodesic dome.  Spherical fullerenes (resembling soccer balls) are also called “buckyballs”; cylindrical ones, carbon nanotubes or “buckytubes.”

I have to say, I think that we are in some kind of final examination as to whether human beings now, with this capability to acquire information and to communicate, whether we’re really qualified to take on the responsibility we’re designed to be entrusted with. And this is not a matter of an examination of the types of governments, nothing to do with politics, nothing to do with economic systems. It has to do with the individual. Does the individual have the courageto really go along with the truth?

God, to me, it seems
is a verb,
not a noun,
proper or improper.

For more, see “And that’s a lot.”



Written by LW

July 12, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Man is not born to solve the problem of the universe, but to find out what he has to do; and to restrain himself within the limits of his comprehension”*…


Half a century ago, the pioneers of chaos theory discovered that the “butterfly effect” makes long-term prediction impossible. Even the smallest perturbation to a complex system (like the weather, the economy or just about anything else) can touch off a concatenation of events that leads to a dramatically divergent future. Unable to pin down the state of these systems precisely enough to predict how they’ll play out, we live under a veil of uncertainty.

But now the robots are here to help…

In new computer experiments, artificial-intelligence algorithms can tell the future of chaotic systems.  For example, researchers have used machine learning to predict the chaotic evolution of a model flame front like the one pictured above.  Learn how– and what it may mean– at “Machine Learning’s ‘Amazing’ Ability to Predict Chaos.”

* Johann Wolfgang von Goethe


As we contemplate complexity, we might might recall that it was on this date in 1961 that Robert Noyce was issued patent number 2981877 for his “semiconductor device-and-lead structure,” the first patent for what would come to be known as the integrated circuit.  In fact another engineer, Jack Kilby, had separately and essentially simultaneously developed the same technology (Kilby’s design was rooted in germanium; Noyce’s in silicon) and has filed a few months earlier than Noyce… a fact that was recognized in 2000 when Kilby was Awarded the Nobel Prize– in which Noyce, who had died in 1990, did not share.

Noyce (left) and Kilby (right)




“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


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




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


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.



“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


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.



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


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).


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


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).



Written by LW

March 11, 2015 at 1:01 am

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