Saturday, April 21, 2007

Pseudo Engineering

I was watching a programme on Animal Planet yesterday. The objective of this programme was to get four engineering students to engineer some artifact of nature. In yesterday's programme, it was the Spider web.

The Spider web is an amazing work of nature. Strands of some spider webs are known to be stronger and more elastic than a steel strand of the same thickness. In addition, the 'architecture' of the spider web, it's spiral construction, and the entire biology behind it, are all simply amazing.

But back to the programme. The four students had to build a spider web on a 60'X40' scaffolding. Yes, you got it right - a 60 foot-by-40 foot scaffolding. The team would then 'trebuchet' a 25 pound weight into it, and the web had to be strong enough to catch it. Further, beyond the obstacles posed by the task, the students also had to contend with the winds blowing in the Sydney harbour.
Needless to say, I was mesmerized. "What a cool assignment", I thought, but as the programme progressed, I just got more and more frustrated. The programme was not about engineering a web. It was about showing the 'cool' side of engineering, with cute babes (and hunks, for those inclined), and some 'action' - like having people bungee jump from a 60 foot scaffold or hurl washing machines in the air. Why am I so disappointed? Because while there are no two words about engineering being cool, there is a lot of sweat that goes into making it look cool. There is a lot of math - for instance, you are aiming at a web, that is X feet away, with a trebuchet that can throw a ball of weight M with a force of J Newtons. You have wind blowing at an angle theta with a velocity of v kmph. Now, what are the angle/distance/power metrics for your trebuchet so that the ball hits the centre of the web? Calculating this is engineering. Not random testing the final version by firing away to glory, or having your only claim to math being a spreadsheet that never gets used.
Maybe I'm being too harsh. I don't know. Why don't you tell me through the comments link?


John said...

It looks great

Samarth said...

Absoultely true!
Great thought!

kattricker said...

Calculating angle/distance/power is physics btw not engg (just pickin' on u!)... sounds more like the show was abt final testing of the artifact than building it. or maybe u got distracted when they were building it ;)!!... hey btw, i was trying to remember where i had seen the trebuchet... when finally it occurred... in asterix!