Monday, April 30, 2007

Saturn in Sunlight

Cassini just keeps on chugging. From the NASA site:

Saturn and its stunning rings
Such a view is only possible from the Saturn-orbiting Cassini spacecraft. This view looks toward the unilluminated side of the rings from about 33 degrees above the ringplane. Shadows of the innermost rings are cast upon the planet at upper left. The edge of Saturn's shadow cuts a straight line across the rings near upper right.

The image was taken in visible light with the Cassini spacecraft wide-angle camera on March 30, 2007 at a distance of approximately 1.9 million kilometers (1.2 million miles) from Saturn. Image scale is 117 kilometers (73 miles) per pixel.

For more information about the Cassini-Huygens mission visit . The Cassini imaging team homepage is at .

Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Smartfish: A Hydrogen Fuel Cell Powered Airplane

With declining budgets at NASA and an airline industry beset with growth pains, soaring fuel costs, and bankrupt carriers it has been some time since I have seen true innovation in the aerospace industry. For decades, airplanes have advanced very little despite tremendous strides in tools, materials, and engines. Incremental tweaks on 20+ year-old designs comprise the bulk of the commercial and military complement. But I now have new hope of a resurgent industry.

Check out the Smartfish personal aircraft design project that has been the ongoing masterwork of a rock-star design team from Germany and Switzerland since 2003. Smartfish might seem like an odd name for an airplane until you get a look at it's profile; it is very piranha-like indeed.

The basic concept is to design and build a new generation of personal aircraft using the latest software design and simulation tool, aerodynamics, composite materials, and jet engine technologies. When aggregated into one cohesive design demonstrating unprecedented efficiencies, the initial results promise a tiny craft whose entire body provides lift rather just relying on the wings. The svelte profile of the composite material lifting body introduces less drag with modest wings, and requires less thrust to power. It requires so much less thrust that a tiny engine powered by a hydrogen fuel cell drove the first 1-meter model craft at full speed for 15 minutes.

There are so many interesting aspects to this design project that I almost don't know where to start. Thankfully, their web site nicely documents the project's evolution from initial concept, to computer modeling and optimization, to wind-tunnel tests and model flights. Truly amazing start-to-finish. Here is a short photo summary of the amazing project to-date.

Here is the original CAD drawing for the design concept.

This is a rendering of the simulated air flow around the CAD model which shows the vortex-lift generated by the novel lifting body shape that makes the craft so efficient.

This is an image of the numerically-controlled milling machine carving the mold for the single-piece carbon-composite body.

An image of the completed top-panel mold.

The completed 1 meter scale model.

A Trade-show booth highlighting the completed model and the simple hydrogen fuel cell powered jet engine.

The engineers installing the model in the big wind tunnel for stability and control testing and design optimization.

Making the last pre-test connections.

The post-test flow patterns painted on the model by the test fluids.

And see the model in flight in this short promo video.

This project is a complete tour-de-force of modern design, and demonstrates what it takes to change an industry: several years of monomaniacal focus in a small elite team. I believe these folks are really going to succeed in changing the industry where multi-billion dollar multinational aerospace conglomerates have been stalled for decades. It is really the silicon valley start-up model applied to aerospace, much like Tesla is changing the automotive world.

And oh yes, I definitely want one. I'd even take a MODEL of one.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Make a Homo-polar Motor in Five Minutes

Here's a REALLY simple example of how anyone can make a simple motor in about 10 minutes or less from Make Magazine.


Building it is simple. Explaining how it works is a little trickier, as there are no alternating poles or brushes typical of the garden variety motor. Check out the homopolar motor description on Wikipedia, and another example of how to make a homopolar motor here at

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Stand-up Economist

Okay, I admit it. I'm a nerd. But this one killed me.

The Real Nature of a Scientist

This one spoke to me. My wife even nodded when she read it, "Yep, I could totally see you doing that."

The Difference

The roll-over caption says it all. "How could you possibly choose avoiding a little pain over understanding a magic lightning machine?"

From xkcd, and thanks to Benjamin over at The World's Fair for the tip.

Saturday, April 14, 2007


Photojojo had a nice post about stitching snippets of panned videos together to make a single video panorama that they call a videorama.

Cool, eh?

Here's a link on how to make your own video-ramas with Flash, or with Final Cut Pro.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

The Steady March of Progress

From TechEBlog, check out this 5 MegaByte hard disk from 1956.

Global Warming Update and More Political Science

I've been meaning to post an update on climate change for some time now, as I have refrained from opining since I saw Al Gore's movie "An Inconvenient Truth" several months ago. At that time, I posted a story, "A Convenient Supposition" which called out that from the data available and collated at the time (and presented in the film) there was still a big difference between correlation and causality. Moreover, there was a long way between correlations in CO2 levels and global temperature fluctuations and the claim that one CAUSED the other. In fact, there was some considerable evidence that over the past few million years that it was the temperature changes that preceded the CO2 concentration changes, offering a strong indication that the chain of causation was reversed from what alarmists might otherwise prefer in their supporting data.

But since that time, additional evidence has been collected by Hansen and others that, to my mind, irrefutably demonstrates and validates the hypothesis that the industrial development and emission of greenhouse gases has contributed substantially to global temperature increases.

For a more detailed look at the most recent data compilations and analysis, check out the original scientific draft report from the International Panel on Climate Change, and the IPCC's 4th assessment report. There's a lot of good stuff in the latter, but my favorite chart from the presentation is the following.

FIGURE SPM-4. Comparison of observed continental- and global-scale changes in surface temperature with results simulated by climate models using natural and anthropogenic forcings. Decadal averages of observations are shown for the period 1906–2005 (black line) plotted against the centre of the decade and relative to the corresponding average for 1901–1950. Lines are dashed where spatial coverage is less than 50%. Blue shaded bands show the 5–95% range for 19 simulations from 5 climate models using only the natural forcings due to solar activity and volcanoes. Red shaded bands show the 5–95% range for 58 simulations from 14 climate models using both natural and anthropogenic forcings. {FAQ 9.2, Figure 1}

Some of you may have noted that the link to the latest assessment I offered above led to a draft marked "not for distribution." This was on purpose, because what I have offered was the output of the scientific communities BEFORE the politicians insisted on editing the more "inflammatory" wording. I will let you draw your own conclusions as to the intent of said edits by also pointing you to the finally approved version available on the IPCC web site so you might make your own line-by-line comparisons.

For those too busy to track down the details, here is an example from the original draft page 2:
"Many natural systems, on all continents and in some oceans, are being affected by regional climate changes, particularly temperature increases [very high confidence]."
And in the final version:
"Observational evidence from all continents and most oceans shows that many natural systems are being affected by regional climate changes, particularly high temperatures."
Subsequent edits are similar.

Does anyone else find it odd that Politicians are telling scientists that they should be LESS certain? Usually it's the other way around. And when this particular cart is in front of the horse, the politicization of science seems very dangerous to me.

If you want more details on the political monkeying with the scientific reports, see these articles from:

The Associated Press:
"Several scientists objected to the editing of the final draft by government negotiators but in the end agreed to compromises. However, some scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change vowed never to take part in the process again."

"The authors lost," said one participant. "A lot of authors are not going to engage in the IPCC process any more. I have had it with them," he said on condition of anonymity because the proceedings were supposed to remain confidential. An Associated Press reporter, however, witnessed part of the final meeting.

and a more detailed report from the New York Times.

Which version do you all think the general public should be exposed to, the original scientific summary provided for policy-makers, or the watered-down version spun by the politicians?

I actually think it is important to show both, and not only get the proper technical and scientific message across, but also to expose the political maneuvering and agendas hampering action on important scientific issues.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

The Bounce-O-Meter

Have you ever found yourself saying something, and the very moment those ill-considered words passed your lips, there was a subtle foreshadowing that you had touched off a chain of events that would soon escaped your control? Well, I was reminded of one such historical gaffe from my teaching years this morning.

It all began innocuously enough in my high school Physics class when a student asked the disappointingly common question, "...but what will this REALLY be good for in the rest of my life?" My response was reflexive. "You can use the techniques and problem solving skills in addition to the knowledge of physical systems to understand literally ANYTHING in the world around you."

Seems harmless enough right? But then I went on to say, "Pick a topic, ...any topic whatsoever, and we will apply these techniques to analyze it." And yes, that was where I had failed to truly anticipate the effect of surging hormones on pubescent males. What else could possibly be on the minds of teenage males? Of course they said, "BOOBS!"

It's true, I could have said something like "...yeah, very funny. Pick another topic." But I really wanted to get the students eyes out of the textbook and looking at the world around them in an analytical frame of mind. They were clearly already looking in that particular direction, and I don't think I ever had a class achieve such rapt attention and engagement in any other prospect. In retrospect, students seem to have a keen sense of when a teacher is walking a razors edge, and I should have been more wary of their finely tuned instincts for instructional embarrassments. Well, I seized the day, as they say. What can I say? I was young and brash.

And so began my discourse on how one might go about designing a bra; mass, moments of inertia, oscillation, resonance, damping, elasticity, and energy storage in material design all figured prominently. I tried to move from diagrams of breasts in motion to more abstract free-body diagrams of forces and equations as quickly as possible, but the damage was done. I think it may have taken all of about 30 seconds after the class was dismissed for the news of my enlightened Physics lesson to be relayed across the school, to the entire student body, the faculty, the school administration, the parents and even the school board.

Fortunately, I had taken to preserving meticulous notes and audio tapes of the classes in anticipation of possible future publication opportunities, and they, and my rather dispassionate mathematical description of a fashion and textile design problem saved me from being fired the next day, though there was a right-wing contingent all a-twitter from their kids having heard the word "breast" uttered by a male teacher. My one consolation was that the students performed better on that unit of physical modeling than on any other. Engaged, indeed.

Thankfully, however, another firm has now taken up the challenge of properly modeling, simulating, rendering, and articulating (ahem) in fact, the issues surrounding proper sports bra design. If only I had had this tool available for my fateful lesson. Witness the Bounce-O-Meter, a web site application that demonstrates how proper bra design impacts comfort during strenuous activities.

Be sure to check out the wire-frame and fully rendered animated models here after you select a cup size and level of activity. Bare breasts, breasts encased in a traditional bra, and a set supported by the latest "Shock Absorber" bra can all be compared. Now THAT's physical modeling.

The Latest Tips for Evil Overlords

The original post of advice for Evil Overlords was an immediate Internet cult classic. See the vastly expanded list here, complete with new tips for excelling as an evil henchmen, or a trooper in a legion of doom, or the Overlord's accountant, or even for the Evil Overlord's beautiful but wicked daughter.

A couple of my favorites:

12. One of my advisors will be an average five-year-old child. Any flaws in my plan that he is able to spot will be corrected before implementation.

15. I will never employ any device with a digital countdown. If I find that such a device is absolutely unavoidable, I will set it to activate when the counter reaches 117 and the hero is just putting his plan into operation.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

A Great Book for the Kids

Always on the lookout for more science education resources, I stumbled across a real gem last week. There are any number of "kids science experiment" style books, but precious few articulate fundamental engineering principles in such a way that elementary students can get their hands dirty and build something at little or no expense.

Check out "How Things Work" by Neil Ardley. You can purchase it here from Amazon.

The book guides readers through an introduction to a broad range of foundational engineering challenges from structural design, to aerodynamics of birds and planes, to hydraulic valves and pumps, and almost everything in between. Each chapter includes clear directions on how to build prototypes with paper, cardboard, straw types of materials. They are FANTASTIC.

The demo projects are by-and-large rather simple and short, but do a great job demonstrating fundamental principles and techniques. They then become the perfect platform to ask, "so how would you make your widget ______ [Stronger, Faster, Lighter, etc...]?" Then you just give 'em a bucket of parts and watch them go.

The cover touts a target demographic of ages 8-14 but I already have my 4 1/2 year-old daughter working on a couple of projects. Takes after her 'ol Dad she does!

Every school (and parent) should have one! Go forth and engineer!