Tuesday, October 23, 2007

S.S. United States

I was in Philadelphia over the weekend visiting my son. We made a trip to Ikea to pick up a bookshelf for his apartment. Directly across from the Ikea store in South Philly is the berth of the S.S. United States. This once-proud ship now looks like a forlorn relic of some bygone era. Her fading paint and rust-encrusted hull belie the fact that just 50 years ago, she was the fastest ship afloat, clocking speeds that were documented as exceeding 50 mph!

The S.S. United States was built as both an ocean liner and a troop transport. The U.S. government helped to underwrite a huge part of the cost to build the ship. The reason was to have a readily available troop carrier that was so fast it could outrun anything else on the seas. The ship still holds the Transatlantic surface crossing speed record of 3 days, 10 hours, and 42 minutes.

But the United States was a classic example of the perfecting of one technology while another (the jumbo jet) was making it that perfection obsolete. The United States sailed for only 17 years and made its final trip in 1969. Many ideas were put forth on how to bring her back to her old glory but none have succeeded. At one point, the U.S. Government nixed the sale of the ship to foreign cruise lines because it would mean the divulging of her capability that was considered a military secret.

Since 1996, the S.S. United States has sat in the old Navy Yard in Philadelphia under the care of the S.S. United States Foundation, a non-profit organization intent on finding a way to preserve the ship. In 2003, she was sold to Norwegian Cruise Lines which still has not announced what they intend to do with the ship.

It seemed ironic to me that I was visiting one Scandinavian company's property (Ikea) while I was looking at the legacy of our shipping glory now owned by another Scandinavian company (NCL). Maybe it would be best that the S.S. United States follow the fate of so many other famous ships and be sent to the scrap yard. The memories of her are easier to take than the current reality.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Engineering Our World

Something puzzles me. I like to read about science and technology. I scan newspaper headlines and websites to see what's happening. Finding science news isn't hard. One of the best sites I've found is SciTechDaily, a compendium of news and opinion on the topic. But technology has come to mean computer/software/web technology. HiTech. As though that is the only form of technology. Mostly, HiTech is in the news because this where investors hope to make a buck. Nothing wrong with that. It's more about the money than the technology.

What seems to me to be missing from almost all of the news and websites I scan is information about engineering. Engineering is what converts all the science into useful products, structures, applications, materials, and services. Yet, there seems to be little or nothing written about engineering. Maybe that's consistent with the low profile of engineering as a profession. Engineers tend to be quiet people who are more interested in getting the project done than in drawing attention to themselves.

My contention is that with all of the news about science breakthroughs and the investment-driven HiTech news, engineering has become almost transparent to our society. Even the National Academy of Engineering has a low profile to most people. That is until something like a bridge collapses or a product failure forces a massive recall. Both have happened in my town in the last couple of months. On August 1st, the I-35 Bridge collapsed into the Mississippi River. Just a couple of days ago, Medtronic announced a recall on implantable defibrillators due to potential leadwire failures. This is NOT the kind of attention that engineering needs. But unfortunately, this is pretty much the only time that engineering makes the news. People don't stop to be thankful that their cars running reliably 99.999 percent of the time. People assume that the electric grid will always be on (and it virtually always is, at least in this country). People have no trouble getting into an elevator and assuming it will get them to their floor without mishap.

Engineering is everywhere around us. It permeates every corner of our lives. We are all consumers of engineering. Too bad it doesn't get more positive press on a regular basis. If you know an engineer, thank him or her sometime for the good work.

(Image of Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco from Wikipedia)

Friday, October 12, 2007

Brunelleschi's Dome

A few months ago, I wrote a piece about domes and mentioned Brunelleschi's Dome as one example. At the time, I had been reading Ross King's book by the same title as this entry. But the book left me wanting a cleared picture of how the dome was built. What was clear was how he didn't build it: with centering scaffolding. The space enclosed by the dome was just too big to use wooden supports (as was conventionally done to build smaller arches and domes).

This remained something of an abstract curiosity for me until a few weeks ago when I was back in Florence. Once again, I was confronted...overwhelmed the shear size of this magnificent structure. Most everyone has seen pictures of the Duomo but until you are in it's presence you don't have a good idea of the scale of this structure. And it was all built without a scaffold.

Since getting home, I have been doing some more digging about how Brunelleschi actually built his masterpiece. Almost 600 years later, architects and structural engineers still do not know for sure how he did it and they still get into strong arguments about one theory or another. One Florentine architect, Massimo Ricci has spent 30 years trying to figure this out and thinks he has the answer: Brunelleschi built the dome with an interlocking set of herring-bone patterned bricks that would keep the bricks in place while the mortar dried, even on the steeply sloped surface as the dome rose. Ricci is even building a smaller model of the dome (without scaffolding) in a park in Florence to prove his point.

Frankly, I like the idea that the best minds today with all of the tools at their disposal cannot figure out how a goldsmith in 1420 built the dome without leaving any plans or instructions for future generations to ponder. We have a tendency to think of anyone in the past as "disadvantaged" and perhaps a little less capable than we are ourselves. Brunelleschi punctures that balloon and leaves us feeling a little more humble. I also like the fact that Brunelleschi did not feel the need to leave any plans or writings about what he did. To him, the Dome itself was all the record that was needed. When I stand in the square looking at his accomplishment, I have to agree.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Big Technology

I was exchanging e-mail with a colleague at MentorNet recently about the decline in enrollments in science and engineering. This took me back to my own motivations to pursue a career in engineering. I went to high school in the early 60's. The Race for Space was front page news. President Kennedy had responded to the threat of Sputnik by challenging the nation to put a man on the moon by the end of decade. This was a Big Deal and it reached beyond young people's desire to simply have a job or to make a decent living, but more to be a part of history. At least, that's the way I felt.

I went to engineering school at the University of Michigan and after graduation took a job with Bendix Aerospace which had the contract for the Apollo Lunar Surface Experiment Package (ALSEP). I came too late for Apollo 11 and 12, but my work was onboard Apollo's 14 through 17. I still love the idea that when I look at the moon at night, I know that some of my efforts are in the equipment that is still there. I was pleased to see Google release Google Moon recently which has the site maps for all the Apollo landings. If you click through to the images, you can see the ALSEP experiments being deployed by the astronauts.

The point is, Apollo fired the national imagination as all Big science and technology does. These projects don't come along every day. I can think of only a handful: the Transcontinental Railroad, the Panama Canal, the Manhattan Project, the Moon Project, the Human Genome Project. We currently lack anything like these that grab the hearts and minds of not only new students but the rest of us as well. Somewhere in our current struggle with energy and climate change such a project may emerge. We could use it. Sooner rather than later. All of these Big Projects have not only reached their specific objectives but they have also spun off the seeds of innovation that continue to feed us in so many other ways.

Most Big Projects are born of crisis. What will it take to get the next one going? I guarantee that if we have one, enrollments in science and engineering will go way up.