Archive for January, 2004

Ready to take a risk?

January 21st, 2004 by dstmartin

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Life is a gamble, they say. Well, we’re going to roll the dice and take a look at risk. Today, on Engineering Works!

Some things are just risky. Everybody knows that — bungee jumping, skydiving. How about driving to work every morning or living across town from a nuclear reactor?

Engineers think about risk all the time. It’s a lot of what they do. To engineers, risk is something they can calculate. How long until that transistor burns out. What happens then, and what can we do about it? Will the airplane crash? Or will your TV just go black. Same transistor; different risk.

Most of us think about risks with our guts instead of our heads. We all know people who refuse to fly because it’s risky. Those same people drive to work on crowded highways and think nothing of it. If you look it up, traffic accidents injure and kill many more people than airplane crashes.

We all have little quirks like this. Usually it has to do with the way we think about what we do. If it’s something we think we control, it must not be very risky. If someone else controls it, it feels riskier.

Engineers help us reduce many of life’s risks. Others we can’t avoid. The most useful thing is to try to understand the risks around us and make intelligent choices.

And maybe take a pass on the sky-surfing lessons.


Hard-hitting engineer

January 14th, 2004 by dstmartin

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Put on your coat and come along. We’re going to watch some football. Today on Engineering Works!

Everybody catches their breath and winces when a linebacker puts a big hit on the ball carrier. Sometimes you can feel it all the way up in the stands.

It’s exciting, but some of those big hits can knock a player silly, especially if he gets hit in the head. During six recent seasons, NFL players suffered almost 900 concussions, some severe enough that players had to stop playing football.

Biomechanical engineers studying the problem for the NFL are finding that concussions are complicated events. They happen very quickly, in about 15 thousandths of a second. They happen most often when one player’s helmet rams into the side of another player’s helmet. The most dangerous place for a player to get hit is just below the ear. And they get hit hard. Sometimes almost a hundred times the force of gravity.

It’s even led to a whole new field of study: concussion physics. One team of engineers is using computers to build a virtual model of a helmet to help them figure out how to best protect players’ brains against the shock of a hard hit. The model they come up with could be used to design and build better helmets for other sports, like hockey.

Time to get back to the game. That looked like a clip!


Engineers pave the way

January 7th, 2004 by dstmartin

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Climb in and start ‘er up. We’re going to take a little drive today on Engineering Works!

If you’re going to have wheels, you need roads. If you’re going to have roads, you need engineers.

The old Roman military engineers got a lot of ink in the history books for their roads, but the Egyptians got there first. Ancient Egyptian engineers built the first paved road. more than 2,000 years before the Romans built even a hiking trail. It wasn’t much of a road — seven-and-a-half miles that linked a rock quarry to the Nile River; but it was first.

Today, we take paved roads for granted, from city streets to the interstates that connect cities. It hasn’t always been that way. In fact, it really hasn’t been that way very long. Until the 1920s, most highways in the United States were dirt roads. In fact, in 1919, Dwight Eisenhower, then an Army officer, drove across the country on those dirt roads. It took him two months.

President Eisenhower later signed the law that started construction of our nationwide system of divided interstate highways. Now we have more than four million miles of paved public highways.

And just in case you wondered — the first recorded traffic accident involving a motor vehicle happened in New York City in 1896. A motorist hit a bicycle rider and spent the night in jail.

That’s the end of today’s trip. Drive safely.