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Posts Tagged ‘engineering’

Watch the IgNobel Prizes Tomorrow!

September 28, 2011 Leave a comment

The 21st 1st (no typo) Annual IgNobel Prizes are tomorrow. What are the Igs, you ask?

The Ig Nobel Prizes honor achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think. The prizes are intended to celebrate the unusual, honor the imaginative — and spur people’s interest in science, medicine, and technology.

Awarded by Improbable Research, we will learn tomorrow whose real-life research is the weirdest, coolest, and funniest.

For example, last year’s physics prize went to

Lianne ParkinSheila Williams, and Patricia Priest of the University of Otago, New Zealand, for demonstrating that, on icy footpaths in wintertime, people slip and fall less often if they wear socks on the outside of their shoes.

Here’s the reference to prove it!

To hear about it live, you can watch the webcast or you can watch Scicurious (one of my fav science bloggers) live blog the event.

It is always entertaining and reminds us all why we love science!

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Ryan

Shock wave from a Trombone Caught on Film

May 29, 2011 Leave a comment

The weak shock wave emanating from a trombone was captured on film and presented at the 161st Meeting of the Acoustical Society for America in Seattle.

The researchers used schlieren photography to capture the images. This method is able to image fluids through the changes in their refractive index and is used largely in aeronautical engineering to study air flow around airplanes.

It’s also wicked-cool :)

The Human Powered Helicopter Flies!

May 13, 2011 Leave a comment
Gamera Team

Judy Wexler in the Gamera cockpit.

Earlier this week, I wrote about the University of Maryland’s ‘Gamera’ project. The engineering team there have designed and built a human-powered helicopter over the past two and a half years and were finally ready make it fly this week.

On Wednesday May 11, the team made their first attempt. They were unable to get the chopper off the ground, so minor repairs were performed and a second attempt was made yesterday, May 12.

After a few attempts, the pilot, Judy Wexler, was able to get the helicopter off the ground for a total of 4 seconds. (In the video below, she gets off the ground at about 3:20)

It is not quite what they had hoped. The ultimate goal was to win the Sirkosky Prize, but that would have required the chopper to fly for at least 1 minute and reach a height of at least 3 meters.

This is still a historic flight, however. It is the first human-powered helicopter to be piloted by a woman, and assuming the review of the flight video goes according to plan, the first to be certified by the National Aeronautics Association.

Darryl Pines, Dean of the A. James Clark School of Engineering, had this to stay about the success:

I am incredibly proud of this amazing feat of engineering and physical prowess, and grateful to faculty mentors Drs. Inderjit Chopra, V.T. Nagaraj, and J. Gordon Leishman. Today’s flight of Gamera is a fitting symbol of our excellence in rotorcraft research and education, and our first step toward winning the Sikorsky Prize.

Building a Human Powered Helicopter

May 9, 2011 2 comments

Da Vinci would be proud.

Students at the University of Maryland will be testing their design for a human-powered helicopter this Wednesday, May 11. 

The team is attempting to win the Sirkosky Challenge. This is a challenge proposed by the American Helicopter Society in 1980 with a prize of $250,000. In order to win, the team’s flight machine must

  • use only human power
  • be off the ground for at least 60 seconds
  • reach a minimum 3 meter altitude during the flight
  • stay within a 10 meter box

While many man-powered aircraft have been produced, making a man-powered helicopter is quite difficult, as explained in the really cool video about the project shown below.

Best of luck to the team! I’m very curious to see how this turns out.

Finally, Science is Doing Something Useful!

April 5, 2011 1 comment

Photo Credit: Aaron Logan

I love coffee. It has lots of flavour nuance (yes, I actually said nuance) and my brain loves stimulants.

But here’s the problem. I come into work in the morning, and I get a coffee. It is too hot to drink at first, so I let it sit for a few minutes.

However, after reading a few emails I get distracted and forget about my poor coffee. By the time I remember it, which is usually about an hour later, it is far too cold.

So I take it to the microwave to heat it up. However, it gets too hot, so I have to let it sit for a few minutes.

And the cycle goes on. It is definitely one of our #firstworldproblems, but it annoys me nonetheless.

But behold! The Coffee Temperature Regulating Thing-a-ma-jig!

The Coffee Joulie

Actually they are called Coffee Joulies, and they even have a Kickstarter page to raise some money to get the business up and running.

So how do they actually work? Each stainless steel “joulie” contains a material which melts at 140 degrees Fahrenheit (60 degrees Celsius). If the coffee is hotter than this, the material absorbs thermal energy by undergoing a phase change (melting). This helps cool the coffee down faster. Once the temperature of the coffee dips below 140, the material remains slightly hotter than that until it solidifies, which keeps the coffee hotter, longer.

And no, I am in no way affiliated with these two guys who started this company, and I have no financial interest in the product. I just think it is an interesting solution to a common problem, and the solution is elegant in its simplicity.

Google Builds a Self-Driving Car

March 4, 2011 1 comment

There seems to be nothing that Google can’t do!

The self-driving car project has been kept quiet for a long time. But it was recently revealed at a TED conference.

So why is Google doing this? (As if, ‘Why not?’ isn’t a good enough answer). From Google’s blog:

According to the World Health Organization, more than 1.2 million lives are lost every year in road traffic accidents. We believe our technology has the potential to cut that number, perhaps by as much as half.

How does it work?

Our automated cars use video cameras, radar sensors and a laser range finder to “see” other traffic, as well as detailed maps (which we collect using manually driven vehicles) to navigate the road ahead. This is all made possible by Google’s data centers, which can process the enormous amounts of information gathered by our cars when mapping their terrain.

So we may not have flying cars yet, but self-driving cars are pretty freakin’ awesome.

Sweden Developing a Matrix-style Method to Harvest Body Heat

January 9, 2011 Leave a comment

“The human body generates more bio-electricity than a 120 volt battery and 25,000 BTUs of body heat. Combined with a form of fusion, the machines had found all the energy they would ever need.”

Morpheus was describing the motivation for building the Matrix. Thankfully, Sweden has no plans to enslave the human race; otherwise we would should have heard about it on WikiLeaks.

But Swedish engineers have developed a way to harness the body heat of commuters passing through Stockholm Central Station.

The excess heat in the building generated by commuters is used to heat water. The hot water is then pumped across the street to heat an office block.

The process could save the building 25% in heating costs, and is relatively simple to implement.

Humans generate 100 watts of body heat, and all that energy gets wasted if nobody harnesses it. When you have thousands of even millions of commuters going through a building, that is a lot of wasted power.

Nowadays, wasted power means wasted money, so expect to see lots more clever ideas like this from engineers to reduce energy costs.

How Facebook Connects the World: A Visual

December 14, 2010 1 comment
A Stunning Visualization of Facebook Friend Connections – Click to Enlarge

This beautiful simulation was created by a Facebook intern named Paul Butler. He is an intern on Facebook’s data infrastructure engineering team.

Using a sample of 10 million friend pairs, he wanted to see how those friends were connected geographically. How did he do it?

He explains in a Facebook note, but it is a little bit technical, so I will attempt to translate for the lay reader.

First he started with his 10 million sample pairs. Then he sorted them out by adding up how many friends each city has with each other. For example, how many friends do people in New York have in Chicago? How many friends do people in Los Angeles have in Tokyo? And so on.

So then he tried plotting lines between those cities. Pairs of cities that had more friends between them would have brighter lines. But this turned out to be a bit of a problem. When he tried this,

…a big white blob appeared in the center of the map. Some of the outer edges of the blob vaguely resembled the continents, but it was clear that I had too much data to get interesting results just by drawing lines. I thought that making the lines semi-transparent would do the trick, but I quickly realized that my graphing environment couldn’t handle enough shades of color for it to work the way I wanted.

His graph simply did not have enough shades of blue to make an accurate representation of the numbers. But since he sounds like a very smart guy, he came up with a solution:

I defined weights for each pair of cities as a function of the Euclidean distance between them and the number of friends between them. Then I plotted lines between the pairs by weight, so that pairs of cities with the most friendships between them were drawn on top of the others.

So cities that were closer together got brighter lines. So the line between New York and Chicago is brighter than the line between Los Angeles and Tokyo. Next, he chose to plot lines between cities that have more friendships between them on top of other lines. So the line from New York to Chicago is plotted on top of the line from New York to Scranton.

And Voila! A really nice map of the world drawn entirely with friendships. Paul Butler had some deep thoughts on it:

It’s not just a pretty picture, it’s a reaffirmation of the impact we have in connecting people, even across oceans and borders.

Facebook has gotten some bad press lately. And frankly, I was getting sick of people clogging up my News Feed with Farmville.

But damn, that picture is cool.

Behold! The Non-Browning Apple!

November 29, 2010 Leave a comment

It’s lunch time. You take a bit of your delicious apple. A colleague asks for your opinion on something, and you forgot about your apple for a few minutes.

When you return to it, you find it has become brown and gross. You throw it away out of disgust.

But its possible this may not happen again, if a new breed of genetically modified apple which doesn’t brown gets approval for growing. A biotech company called Okanagan Specialty Fruits of Summerland (OSF), based in British Columbia, Canada, has developed the apple and believes it will be a hit. Neal Carter, president of the company said

They look like apple trees and grow like apple trees and produce apples that look like all other apples and when you cut them, they don’t turn brown. The benefit is something that can be identified just about by everybody.

He says that the new type of apple will encourage it to be packaged in salads and children’s lunches, helping lead to more healthy eating.

How does it work? Well my biology is a little rusty, but basically what happens is this:

When you pierce the skin of the apple you expose the innards to oxygen. This causes a chemical reaction to occur involving enzymes which create melanin, the same pigment in your hair and eyes, and leads to the apple turning brown.

OSF has licensed a technology from Australian researchers which stops the production of a certain enzyme, polyphenol oxidase, which causes the browning.

It will be interesting to see how this pans out, but it will be awhile. The approval process for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service can take years.

In the meantime, there are a couple of things you can do to prevent your fruit from browning. You could drizzle some lemon juice on it, as the acid helps prevent the enzymes from turning the fruit brown. Also, you could refrigerate the fruit before eating, as the cold temperature reduces the rate of the chemical reaction which produces that nasty brown colour.

Women + Science = Awesome

August 11, 2010 1 comment

My undergraduate physics class had about 30 students who got their B.Sc. at the same time as me.

Only 4 of them were women.

But dammit, they were equals every single step of the way. We studied together, we wrote tests together, and we got drunk after we wrote tests together.

I have heard of a time when women studying STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) was frowned upon. They were ignored by their peers and were not taken seriously.

Boy, how times have changed.

But unfortunately, there is still a large gender gap in the physical sciences. Although women are considered equals, enrollment numbers, particularly in Engineering, are still dominated by males. Recruiting programs have been set up to try and get more women into Engineering (although being the only girl in a class full of engineers probably has its advantages in terms of attention received). And while the number of women studying physics is climbing, it is climbing slowly.

So what is the solution? How do we get more women interested in science and technology?

I think a big part of it will be letting young girls know that its OK to like science. There are probably a huge number of girls who would rather play with chemistry sets than barbie dolls, but feel strange doing so; especially when its only the boys playing with toys like that.

While I have never been a girl myself (though I was called one repeatedly in elementary school), I imagine its not easy for girls interested in science to grow up in a culture of many girls who don’t.  Even though we have come a long way in terms of equality, I think STEM still has a stigma as being for “Boys Only”.

So how do we get the word out that science is for everybody? The internet is a great resource that, up until a decade or so ago, was not available.

For example, a dear friend of mine from University has a blog called Technolochick. This is a site written by women for women who are interested in technology. Its a great idea for a blog and you should really check it out.

Celebrity involvement never hurts either. Amy Poehler, SNL alumnus and star of ‘Parks and Recreation‘, currently helps run a website called ‘Smart Girls at the Party‘  which takes an entertaining approach to encourage girls to follow their passions in STEM.

So ladies, don’t be shy. If you love science, say so! If you want to study it, do so!

And even though I considered all those in my class as equals, if one of the girls batted her eyes at me, I was probably more likely to give her my answers to the homework problems.

So you have that going for you as well.