Archive for October, 2003

High-tech, portable emergency room

October 29th, 2003 by dstmartin

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Hurting yourself is never fun. We’ll learn how emergency medical care a long way from the emergency room can get better, today on Engineering Works.

Close your eyes and picture this. A desert landscape as seen from a trail high in the Chisos Mountains in West Texas’ Big Bend National Park. Nothing but miles and miles of rocks and sun. Beautiful. Then a pebble rolls under your boot and you’re tumbling down a near-vertical slope. When the dust settles, you’re at the bottom and you’re hurt – bad.

If that happened to you today, it could be a grim picture. The nearest clinic is more than 90 miles away, and it’s more than three-hundred miles to the closest level three trauma hospital with a top emergency room.

Engineers and computer scientists are using high-tech electronics to paint a brighter picture for sick or injured people in remote areas like wide-open West Texas. They’re combining high-speed wireless data transmission with real-time video and audio links into a portable package that will ride in an ambulance.

Emergency medical technicians will be able to confer directly with trauma specialists in the far-away emergency room. They won’t have to wait ’til they get to the hospital to begin treating severe injuries or illness. Eventually, the system will tie medics on far-flung oil platforms or orbiting space stations to expert advice from the emergency room.

It will be a while before this system is up and running, but emergency medics are already field-testing the idea in several Texas counties.



October 22nd, 2003 by dstmartin

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Everybody’s talking about paying attention to the big picture. Today on Engineering Works, we’re going to sketch out some of the tiniest pictures you can imagine.

The big picture is okay, but for some engineers, the tiniest picture you can imagine is what’s important.

The tiny picture these engineers are peering into is full of atoms and molecules. They’re using those atoms and molecules to build things: tiny machines that can do things for us. It’s called nano-technology.

Nanotechnology is going to be important to you. What if your windows cleaned themselves? How about a computer screen thin as a sheet of paper? Tear a tendon? A smart splint tells the cells to heal. Nano-technology can make it happen.

Far-fetched? Not really. Except for the computer screen, all these things are here now. And that’s coming soon. Engineers working in nanotechnology use atoms and molecules to build real-world machines. We’re talking really small engineering here – these parts are about 100-80-thousandths of a human hair across.

Nanotechnology has been around science fiction and Star Trek forever. But it’s not make-believe any more. And in 10 years or so – just like the Internet – nanotechnology will be part of our culture.

This “nano-cultureâ€? will include devices like molecule-size “nanobots,” that seek out and cure disease in our bloodstreams. Nano-machines already exist. A nano-guitar built in 1997 can even be played. So, be on the lookout for more nanotechnology benefits. But look really close.


Now that’s a tall building

October 15th, 2003 by dstmartin

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Most of us live our lives pretty close to the ground. Come with us today as we check out life high in the air; skyscrapers on Engineering Works!

For most of us, skyscrapers are what make big cities big: the Empire State Building in New York City; Sears Tower in Chicago; Kuala Lumpur’s Petronas Towers. Big city buildings didn’t used to be so tall. Only a little more than a hundred years ago, a 10-story building was pretty tall. Now, the tallest skyscrapers push more than a quarter of a mile into the air.

Here’s what makes the difference. For centuries, buildings depended on strong walls to stand up. Taller buildings meant thicker walls, until the walls got so thick at the bottom you wouldn’t have any space left inside to move around.

But in the 1880s, engineers came up with new ways to make iron and steel; a lot of iron and steel. That made it possible to make big steel beams. And those big steel beams made it possible for architects to design buildings that didn’t need thick walls to support them. In fact, they didn’t need walls at all to hold themselves up. Enter the skyscraper.

Imagine a tic-tac-toe board. Now, picture it really big and made out of huge steel beams. Stack up these huge steel tic-tac-toe boards around a central core of steel and concrete and you’ve got the part of a skyscraper that does the work. Everything else is just a place to stand and something to keep out the rain.

Now you’ve got lots of space to work or live. And it doesn’t take much room on the ground. Going up!


Are you sitting down?

October 8th, 2003 by dstmartin

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You better sit down for this one. We’re going to check out how that comfortable chair you like got that way; next on Engineering Works.

If you’re listening to this at work, you’re probably sitting in a chair. It’s a safe bet. Three-quarters of the work in industrial countries is done from a chair. In the United States, more than 45-million of us people park ourselves in a chair in front of a computer screen for eight hours a day.

Now, if you’ve ever worked long in a chair that didn’t suit you, you’ll appreciate the engineering that goes into chairs. It’s called ergonomics, a field that uses biology to study how workers and their environments fit together. This Human Factors Engineering differs from traditional engineering in one big way. People don’t fit neatly into equations like bridges or airplanes or nuclear reactors.

Figuring stress on a bridge, air pressure on a wing, nuclear fission. Easy stuff, compared to designing a chair that’ll be comfortable for both a pro football player and a somewhat thinner fashion model.

The human body is a strange thing, but when designing a chair, that’s what engineers have to work with, and there’s no way around it.

But no matter how well-engineered a chair is, the most important factor is still you. As ergonomists say, if you sit the wrong way in an expensive chair, you feel terrible. If you sit the right way in a cheap chair, you still feel pretty good.

One last thing: if you sit still for a long time, you’re taking a chance on developing back trouble. One of the greatest problems is not changing positions often enough. So let’s move around.


The spookiest engineer

October 1st, 2003 by dstmartin

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Today, we’re going to sneak up on some facts about the spookiest engineer you never heard of. Here’s a clue on Engineering Works!

As you’ve probably figured out by now, our spooky engineer is Alfred Hitchcock, of course. Before the world-renowned film director got into the movie biz, Hitchcock was an engineer working in his home town of London, England.

The future director of such movie masterpieces as Charade, North by Northwest and Rear Window was born in 1899 in the east end of London. His strict parents owned and operated a grocery store. Hitchcock’s biographers believe it was their extremely strict upbringing that gave him the obsessive attention to detail that made his films the works of art that they are.

Young Hitchcock studied mechanics and electrical engineering at Saint Ignatius’ College and the University of London. After he graduated, he worked as an estimator for the Henley Cable and Telegraph Company in London. While Hitchcock was working for Henley, he saw his first motion picture. It was love at first sight. He started taking art classes at night and eventually got a job as a title designer for Paramount Pictures when the company opened an office in London.

After a string of jobs as title designer, art director and assistant director, Hitchcock got a chance to direct his own movies and became famous in Britain for a string of thrillers in the 1920s and 1930s, including Blackmail!, the first British movie with sound. He came to the United States in 1939. He directed 50 movies, and although he never won an Oscar, most are classics. Not bad for an engineer. Pass the popcorn!