The other night, Joshua Foer posed this question was posed to a table full of science journalists. Most of us started talking about friction, and/or possibly something to do with the little flanges on either side of a train wheel.
We were all wrong.
This is a Richard Feynman video, yes, but it's more about mechanics than physics. Turns out, you can learn a lot about how trains stay on the track by looking under your own car.
Known affectionately as Bertha, this tunnel boring machine has the widest diameter of any boring machine ever built; 57.5 feet. It's being used to dig a highway tunnel under downtown Seattle and it just arrived there today after being shipped from Japan.
I feel this warrants your attention for two reasons:
1) If you live near Seattle, you can actually go get a look at this massive beast before it starts chewing its way through the city. If you like looking at giant machines (or know someone who does) now's your chance. She's coming into the Port of Seattle, Terminal 46, as you read this and there will be ample opportunities to get a look as the pieces are assembled and moved into the nearby launch pit. The Washington State Department of Transportation has suggestions on places to go to get a good view.
2) If, for some reason, you were looking for a new way to lose massive amounts of time on YouTube, Bertha (and boring machines, in general) can help with that. Here's a cutaway animation explaining how boring machines work. Here's a video of Big Becky, another boring machine, breaking through to the other side of a tunnel at Niagara Falls, Canada. (In fact, boring machine breakthrough videos are, in and of themselves, a mesmerizing genre.) And in this video, you can watch the massively long line of support equipment go by in the wake of a boring machine.
The Pyramids of Giza close to tourists at 4:00 pm. Recently, a group of Russians managed to hide out at the site after closing time and scramble up the Great Pyramid of Cheops in the fading light. Naturally, they took photos. (Because if there is one thing the Internet has taught me about Russians, it's that they like to climb to dangerous heights and then take photos.)
These shots are kind of fabulous, not just for the thrill of "yeah, somebody broke the rules!", but because of the perspective you get from on high that isn't visible in the many ground-level shots I've seen. From on top of the Pyramid, you can see how the stone is pockmarked and carved — it really looks like something humans cut out of the Earth. You can also see the graffiti left by generations of tourists in multiple languages; English, Arabic, French, and more. And you can see the edge of the modern city, shimmering just at the horizon. I don't think I'd previously had such a profound sense of how closely modern Egyptians lived and worked to the Great Pyramid, before. What a fascinating view!
Thanks to Steve Silberman for the link!
Like the people cheering at about :25 into this video, I'm a sucker for dramatic explosions. This one comes from Texas, where the transportation department blew up an old bridge in the city of Marble Falls on March 17th. Also, apparently, it's warm enough in Texas that multiple gentlemen could watch a bridge explode from the comfort of their jet skis.
Making a high-quality elevator isn't just about designing something that can safely go from one floor to another. Elevators are service items. That means that when you design an elevator, you also have to design for people — both individual desires and needs, and the desires and needs of a variety of cultures.
If engineering is really about designing socio-technical systems, then elevators are big, fat, obvious reminder of that dynamic in play. In a profile written for the Wall Street Journal, author Kate Linebaugh describes the work of Theresa Christy, a mathematician and Otis Elevator research fellow.
You press a button and wait for your elevator. How long before you get impatient and agitated? Theresa Christy says 20 seconds.
As a mathematician steeped in the theories of vertical transportation at Otis Elevator Co., Ms. Christy, 55, has spent a quarter-century developing systems that make elevators run as perfectly as possible—which means getting most riders into a car in less than 20 seconds. "Traditionally, the wait time is the most important factor," she says. "The thing people hate the most is waiting."
... The challenges she deals with depend on the place. At a hotel in the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia, she has to make sure that the elevators can clear a building quickly enough to get most people out five times a day for prayer.
In post-Sandy "dewatering" mission, Army engineers drain one Olympic-sized pool's worth of water per minute
The current Wired has a long feature by Robert Capps on the significant changes in product testing and warranty service brought about by the combination of highly accurate computer modelling and disclosure laws that force firms to publish details of the costs of their warranty plans. The latter was most interesting to me, as it offers insight into what had formerly been a black box for gadget-watchers.
One of the world’s foremost experts on the cost of product failure lives and works in a fifth-floor apartment on a modest block in Forest Hills, Queens. His name is Eric Arnum, and he runs a one-man newsletter titled Warranty Week. Tall and soft-spoken, he can (and often does) talk about warranty accruals, payment rates, and reimbursement policies for hours without stopping. Most of his days are spent in his small office, working on a vast array of spreadsheets and PowerPoint slides—files that contain detailed warranty information for 1,107 companies. Collectively, these sheets hold perhaps the most comprehensive accounting of product failures on the planet.
Warranty information is one of the most closely guarded secrets in corporate America. Companies are loath to share how much they spend on warranties and why. It’s understandable, as talking about warranties is the same as talking about the fact that your products break when they’re not supposed to. Because of this, nobody just gives data to Arnum. He has to dig it out, one company at a time.
Arnum owes his livelihood to Enron. In the wake of the scandal that took down the energy juggernaut, the Financial Accounting Standards Board made changes to the Generally Accepted Accounting Principals—the rules that, among other things, govern how companies write financial statements. As of November 2002, companies were required to provide a detailed reckoning of their guarantees, including their warranty reserves and payments, in quarterly and yearly filings. The result was that, for the first time in history, someone could look at, and compare, how US public companies handle claims—how much they pay out, how much they hold aside for future payments.
Ben Mendelsohn sez, "Dredging - the mechanized transport of underwater sediments - is one of the most elemental of the infrastructural support systems that underlie modern societies. Through dredging, we act as geologic agents - moving earth in what amounts to a new geologic cycle. This video introduces dredging, its landscapes, and some of the fascinating technologies that we use to manage it. It was produced in support of DredgeFest NYC, a symposium on the human acceleration of sediments, to be held in New York City on September 28-29." (Thanks, Ben!)
Get WISE is a sold-out science camp for girls running in Halifax, NS, on the campus of Mount St. Vincent University. It's part of the Women In Science Education Atlantic initiative, and combines kinetic learning with hands-on exercises as well as more traditional classroom work. The kids really look like they're having a great time, too.
This great video explainer shows the inner workings of a digital-to-analogue converter, using the IBM Selectric's early example of the form to illustrate the mechanism:
Using slow motion video Bill Hammack, the engineer guy, shows how IBM's revolutionary "golf ball" typewriter works. He describes the marvelous completely mechanical digital-to-analogue converter that translates the discrete impulse of the keys to the rotation of the type element.
IBM Selectric Typewriter & its digital to analogue converter (Thanks, Fipi Lele!)
JPL's video demonstrating the engineering challenges in the precise timing of the descent of a human-crewed Mars lander is nail-biting territory. There's a reason they call the landing "seven minutes of terror."
Challenges of Getting to Mars: Curiosity's Seven Minutes of Terror (Thanks, Fipi Lele!)
Geoff Manaugh at BLDGBLOG has been exploring the bizarre world of Swiss self-destructing infrastructure, documented in La Place de la Concorde Suisse, John McPhee's "rich, journalistic study of the Swiss Army's role in Swiss society." It turns out that the Swiss Army specifies that bridges, hillsides, and tunnels need to be designed so that they can be remotely destroyed in the event of societal collapse, pan-European war, or invasion. Meanwhile, underground parking garages (and some tunnels) are designed to be sealed off as airtight nuclear bunkers.
To interrupt the utility of bridges, tunnels, highways, railroads, Switzerland has established three thousand points of demolition. That is the number officially printed. It has been suggested to me that to approximate a true figure a reader ought to multiply by two. Where a highway bridge crosses a railroad, a segment of the bridge is programmed to drop on the railroad. Primacord fuses are built into the bridge. Hidden artillery is in place on either side, set to prevent the enemy from clearing or repairing the damage...
There are also hollow mountains! Booby-trapped cliff-faces!
Near the German border of Switzerland, every railroad and highway tunnel has been prepared to pinch shut explosively. Nearby mountains have been made so porous that whole divisions can fit inside them. There are weapons and soldiers under barns. There are cannons inside pretty houses. Where Swiss highways happen to run on narrow ground between the edges of lakes and to the bottoms of cliffs, man-made rockslides are ready to slide...
The impending self-demolition of the country is "routinely practiced," McPhee writes. "Often, in such assignments, the civilian engineer who created the bridge will, in his capacity as a military officer, be given the task of planning its destruction."
Broad Sustainable Building (BSB) is an innovative Chinese architectural firm whose mission is to erect "medium-cost, super-saving utility buildings and to promote a futuristic urban lifestyle." They are planning to build the world's tallest building, the Sky City Tower in Changsha, Hunan, whose 220 storeys will be erected in 90 days. The timelapse video above shows another BSB project, a 30-storey hotel that went up in 15 days. The company claims its designs are extremely seismically robust and environmentally efficient. From CNNGo:
Its 220 stories will provide a total of 1 million square meters of usable space, linked by 104 elevators.
Zhang said Sky City is expected to consume a fifth of the energy required by a conventional building due to BSB’s unique construction methods, such as quadruple glazing and 15-centimeter-thick exterior walls for thermal insulation.
The company's construction methods also seem to save money.
According to Chinese newspaper 21 Century Business Herald, the total investment in Sky City is RMB 4 billion (US$628 million), compared with US$1.5 billion on Burj Khalifa and US$2.2 billion on Shanghai Tower.