Tag Archives: engineering

The Pantheon and technology, history of the world from Big Bang to the end, and architecture evolving into a dynamic, interactive process at TED 2014′s Session 2: Retrospect

Now to Retrospect, session two of the TED 2014. As the first scheduled speaker, Bran Ferren kicked off the session. From Ferren’s TED biography,

After dropping out of MIT in 1970, Bran Ferren became a designer and engineer for theater, touring rock bands, and dozens of movies, including Altered States and Little Shop of Horrors, before joining Disney as a lead Imagineer, then becoming president of R&D for the Walt Disney Company.

In 2000, Ferren and partner Danny Hillis left Disney to found Applied Minds, a playful design and invention firm dedicated to distilling game-changing inventions from an eclectic stew of the brightest creative minds culled from every imaginable discipline.

Ferren used a standard storytelling technique as do many of the TED speakers. (Note: Techniques become standard because they work.) He started with personal stories of his childhood which apparently included exposure to art and engineering. His family of origin was heavily involved in the visual arts while other family members were engineers. His moment of truth was during childhood when he was taken to view the Pantheon and its occulus (from its Wikipedia entry; Note: Links have been removed),

The Pantheon (/ˈpænθiən/ or US /ˈpænθiɒn/;[1] Latin: Pantheon,[nb 1] [pantʰewn] from Greek: Πάνθεον [ἱερόν], an adjective understood as “[temple consecrated] to all gods”) is a building in Rome, Italy, commissioned by Marcus Agrippa during the reign of Augustus (27 BC – 14 AD) as a temple to all the gods of ancient Rome, and rebuilt by the emperor Hadrian about 126 AD.[2]

The building is circular with a portico of large granite Corinthian columns (eight in the first rank and two groups of four behind) under a pediment. A rectangular vestibule links the porch to the rotunda, which is under a coffered concrete dome, with a central opening (oculus) to the sky. Almost two thousand years after it was built, the Pantheon’s dome is still the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome.[3] The height to the oculus and the diameter of the interior circle are the same, 43.3 metres (142 ft).[4]

It is one of the best-preserved of all Roman buildings. It has been in continuous use throughout its history, and since the 7th century, the Pantheon has been used as a Roman Catholic church dedicated to “St. Mary and the Martyrs” but informally known as “Santa Maria Rotonda.”[5] The square in front of the Pantheon is called Piazza della Rotonda.

I cannot adequately convey Ferren’s appreciation and moment of inspiration where all in a moment he understood how engineering and art could be one and he also understood something new about light; it can have ‘weight’. He then describes the engineering feat in more detail and notes that we are barely able to achieve a structure like the Pantheon with today’s battery of technological innovations and understanding. He talked about what the ‘miracles’ need to achieve similar feats today and then he segued into autonomous cars and that’s where he lost me. Call me a peasant and an ignoramus (perhaps once these talks are made public it will be obvious I misunderstood his point)  but I am never going to view an autonomous car as being an engineering feat similar to the Pantheon. As I see it, Ferren left out the emotional/spiritual (not religious) aspect that great work can inspire in someone. While the light bulb was an extraordinary achievement in its own right, as is electricity for that matter, neither will are likely to take your breath away in an inspirational fashion.

Brian Greene (not listed on the programme) was introduced next. Greene’s Wikipedia entry (Note: Links have been removed),

Brian Randolph Greene [1] (born February 9, 1963) is an American theoretical physicist and string theorist. He has been a professor at Columbia University since 1996 and chairman of the World Science Festival since co-founding it in 2008. Greene has worked on mirror symmetry, relating two different Calabi–Yau manifolds (concretely, relating the conifold to one of its orbifolds). He also described the flop transition, a mild form of topology change, showing that topology in string theory can change at the conifold point. He has become known to a wider audience through his books for the general public, The Elegant Universe, Icarus at the Edge of Time, The Fabric of the Cosmos, The Hidden Reality, and related PBS television specials. Greene also appeared on The Big Bang Theory episode “The Herb Garden Germination”, as well as the films Frequency and The Last Mimzy.

He also recently launched World Science U (free science classes online) as per a Feb. 26, 2014 post by David Bruggeman on his Pasco Phronesis blog.

The presentation was a history of the world from Big Bang to the end of the world. It’s the fastest 18 minutes I’ve experienced so far and it provided a cosmic view of history. Briefly, everything disintegrates, the sun, the galaxy and, eventually, photons.

The last speaker I’m mentioning is Marc Kushner, architect. from his TED biography (Note: Links have been removed),

Marc Kushner is a practicing architect who splits his time between designing buildings at HWKN, the architecture firm he cofounded, and amassing the world’s architecture on the website he runs, Architizer.com. Both have the same mission: to reconnect the public with architecture.

Kushner’s core belief is that architecture touches everyone — and everyone is a fan of architecture, even if they don’t know it yet. New forms of media empower people to shape the built environment, and that means better buildings, which make better cities, which make a better world.

Kushner, too, started with a childhood story where he confessed he didn’t like the architecture of the home where he and his family lived. This loathing inspired him to pursue architecture and he then segued into a history of architecture from the 1970’s to present day. Apparently the 1970s spawned something called ‘brutalism’ which is very much about concrete. (Arthur Erickson a local, Vancouver (Canada) architect who was internationally lauded for his work loved concrete; I do not.) According to Kushner, I’m not the only one who doesn’t like ‘brutalism’ and so by the 1980s architects fell back on tried and true structures and symbols. Kushner noted a back and forth movement between architects attempting to push the limits of technology and alienating the populace and then attempting to please the populace and going overboard in their efforts with exaggerated and ornate forms which eventually become offputting. Kushner then pointed to Guggenheim Bilbao as an architecture game-changer (from the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao Wikipedia entry; Note: Links have been removed),

The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao is a museum of modern and contemporary art, designed by Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry, and located in Bilbao, Basque Country, Spain. The museum was inaugurated on 18 October 1997 by King Juan Carlos I of Spain.

One of the most admired works of contemporary architecture, the building has been hailed as a “signal moment in the architectural culture”, because it represents “one of those rare moments when critics, academics, and the general public were all completely united about something.”[3] The museum was the building most frequently named as one of the most important works completed since 1980 in the 2010 World Architecture Survey among architecture experts.[3]

Kushner’s own work has clearly been influenced by Gehry and others who changed architecture in the 1990s but his approach is focused on attempting to integrate the community into the process and he described how he and his team have released architectural illustrations onto the internet years before a building is constructed to make the process more accessible.

Dr. Robin Coope will be speaking at Vancouver’s (Canada) Café Scientifique on July 30, 2013

The back room of the The Railway Club (2nd floor of 579 Dunsmuir St. [at Seymour St.], Vancouver, Canada), should be raucous with the sounds of beer slurping and talk of engineering in the life sciences at  the next Café Scientifique Vancouver talk given by Robin Coope on Tuesday, July 30,  2013 at 7:30 pm. Here’s the talk description (from the announcement),

Explain what it is you do again? Engineering in the life sciences

After studiously avoiding biology from high school on, Robin Coope wound up doing a PhD in Physics which involved understanding some exotic failure modes in capillary DNA sequencing. This led to a job at the BC Cancer Agency’s Genome Sciences Centre where he is now the Instrumentation Group Leader. This mostly involves managing the Centre’s liquid handling robots but with various funding sources, projects have involved novel automation platforms for DNA sample prep, as well as several medical devices for cancer treatment and even orthopaedics.

It turns out that practicing engineering while embedded in a clinical research lab with ready access to physicians and life scientists presents a fantastic opportunity to pursue the fundamental objective of engineering: to identify challenges and develop tools to solve them. The clinic is full of problems and unmet needs but the success of a solution often hinges on subtle issues, so it can take many prototypes and much discussion to get something that works. Working in this science-based industry also elucidates a clear distinction between engineering and science where success in the latter should be measured by publishing important ideas, whereas success in the former is really in making solutions available to a broad audience, which ultimately means commercialization. After seven years of in this field its also clear that the most interesting part of the work is the people and the challenges of communicating with specialists in widely divergent fields.

In this talk, Robin will present some recent projects and reflect on key lessons in what has thus far been a remarkably exciting adventure.

Happy slurping!

Dragonflies: beautiful and smart according to Adelaide University (Australia) researchers

[downloaded from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Tiffany_dragonfly_hg.jpg] Attribution: pendant Dragonfly - replica from the lamp by Louis Comfort Tiffany (50 cm diameter, 20 cm hight, about 400 glass pieces), Own work, Hannes Grobe 19:33, 20 June 2007 (UTC) Permission Own work, share alike, attribution required (Creative Commons CC-BY-SA-2.5)

[downloaded from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Tiffany_dragonfly_hg.jpg] Attribution: pendant Dragonfly – replica from the lamp by Louis Comfort Tiffany (50 cm diameter, 20 cm hight, about 400 glass pieces), Own work, Hannes Grobe 19:33, 20 June 2007 (UTC) Permission Own work, share alike, attribution required (Creative Commons CC-BY-SA-2.5)

Long a subject of inspiration for artists, dragonflies have now been observed to exhibit signs of selective intelligence similar to human selective intelligence. From the Dec. 20, 2012 news release on EurekAlert,

In a discovery that may prove important for cognitive science, our understanding of nature and applications for robot vision, researchers at the University of Adelaide have found evidence that the dragonfly is capable of higher-level thought processes when hunting its prey.

The discovery, to be published online today in the journal Current Biology [link to article which behind a paywall], is the first evidence that an invertebrate animal has brain cells for selective attention, which has so far only been demonstrated in primates.

Here’s how the researchers made the observation (from the EurekAlert news release),

Using a tiny glass probe with a tip that is only 60 nanometers wide – 1500 times smaller than the width of a human hair – the researchers have discovered neuron activity in the dragonfly’s brain that enables this selective attention.

They found that when presented with more than one visual target, the dragonfly brain cell ‘locks on’ to one target and behaves as if the other targets don’t exist.

“Selective attention is fundamental to humans’ ability to select and respond to one sensory stimulus in the presence of distractions,” Dr Wiederman [Dr. Steven Wiederman, University of Adelaide] says.

Wiederman’s research partner suggests this observation has the potential for a number of widespread applications,

“Recent studies reveal similar mechanisms at work in the primate brain, but you might expect it there. We weren’t expecting to find something so sophisticated in lowly insects from a group that’s been around for 325 million years.

“We believe our work will appeal to neuroscientists and engineers alike. For example, it could be used as a model system for robotic vision. Because the insect brain is simple and accessible, future work may allow us to fully understand the underlying network of neurons and copy it into intelligent robots,” he [Associate Professor David O'Carroll, University of Adelaide] says.

You can find more information including pictures and a video in the Dec. 21, 2012 University of Adelaide news release.

Pop up event based on European Commission’s Science: It’s a girl thing on July 27, 2012 in Vancouver (Canada)

The Society for Canadian Women in Science and Technology (SCWIST) will be holding a free ‘pop up’ event at Joey’s on Broadway (1424 W. Broadway at Hemlock St.) on Friday, July 27, 2012 from 6 pm – 8 pm.This event is a local outcome of the international discussion taking place about the European Commissions’ Science: It’s a Girl Thing campaign video (first mentioned in my July 6, 2012 posting and then in my July 18, 2012 posting).

Here’s more about the Vancouver topic and the event (from the July 20, 2012 posting on the Westcoast Women in Engineering, Science, and Technology (WWEST) blog on the University of British Columbia website),

Topic: It’s a girl thing: How do we get more girls to pursue STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics] careers?

What is a SCWIST Pop-Up Discussion? A casual evening of networking, socializing, and discussion on current and relevant media topics held at a local restaurant! It’s a chance to get out and chat and network with like-minded people!

There’s also information abut th4 event on the SCWIST  Facebook page.

Henry Petroski, The Essential Engineer explaining why scientists need engineers to solve the world’s problems

The Pasco Phronesis blog (David Bruggeman) featured, in his Oct. 6, 2010 posting, some author videos from the 2010 US National Book Festival. From Pasco Phronesis,

Since there’s several hundred videos to wade through, here are the links to the four authors I saw on September 25. I strongly recommend you watch the Petroski video, though anyone familiar with the work of the other authors should enjoy listening to them. You’ll need RealPlayer to view.

* Edward O. Wilson

* Henry Petroski

* Richard Rhodes

* Harold Varmus

Since David strongly recommended the Petroski video, I searched for and found it on Youtube (didn’t want to bother with the RealPlayer plugin),

Petroski is an engineer who’s specialty is failure and he’s talking about his latest book, The Essential Engineer: Why Science Alone Will Not Solve Our Global Problems (2010).