Friday, February 3, 2012

Guinness Book of World Records a Useful Resource

One of the first books I ever bought, The Guinness Book of World Records - 1992 edition, is still, in my mind, the most informative and entertaining among those that sit on my book shelves.  Where else can one turn to when they want to know the height of the tallest person (8' 11", Robert Waldo), the maximum combined length of finger nails on one hand (181 inches, Shridhar Chillal), and the maximum g-force experienced by any bird (10g's, when the red-headed woodpecker strikes a tree)?

Well, I suppose one could turn to Google, but performing such searches would be much more arduous.  Also, no one would even think to search for most of the endeavours described in the Guinness Book.  In fact, much of the fun in flipping through this record book is had by marveling at some of the most bizarre records it contains, such as the longest leapfrogged distance (888.1 miles by 14 members of a high school class during a 189-hour and 49-minute span).   

From business to the arts, science to sports, anything that has a maximum or minimum is likely captured within those 833 pages.  And, I would go so far as to say that The Guinness Book of World Records is a vital tool for all engineers.  Let me explain...

The typical engineer has a wide set of skills associated with solving complex problems, including a strong background in math and science.  Of all of the skills that an engineer possesses, the most indispensable one is probably common sense.  A healthy dose of common sense allows one to arrive at the starting point of a design quickly, because one may easily separate the feasible options from the unfeasible ones.  Good judgement also allows one to look at the parameters of a design, such as function, mass, volume, and loading environment, as well as the parameters of a project, such as budget and schedule, and assess whether or not, as a set, they appear reasonable.  This is essential when engineering firms are bidding on projects.

What does any of this have to do with a book about world records?  Well, as one leafs through the pages filled with records, one gets a sense of the extreme values of just about anything known to man.  In doing so, one cannot help but develop one's ability to reason.

As I read about the largest pancake ever made (32 feet 11 inches in diameter, 2,866 lbs, Netherlands in 1990), I began to imagine the size of it.  Its diameter was about equivalent to the height above the water of the highest diving board at an Olympic pool.  Its weight was that of roughly twenty people.  Just imagine the difficulty involved in flipping this breakfast beast (yes, it was flipped!).

The largest cockroach ever measured (3.81 inches long by 1.77 inches across) has its origins in Colombia (no, not Manhattan).  Of course, that is small compared to the largest spider (10.5 inch leg span), which is actually called the goliath bird-eating spider, and can weigh more than 4 ounces.  I suppose I would rather not try to imagine one of these.

The point is that whether we are talking about pancakes or arachnids, the Guinness Book of World Records demands that we develop our ability to quantify measurements, in these cases, of length and mass.  Developing a feel for size and weight is critical for any engineer involved in mechanical design.  A strong intuition for what these units of measurement represent is perhaps more important today than ever before, due to the exponential increase in the automation of our tools.

When a simulation program spits out a value for the mass of a bicycle that you are designing virtually, it should strike you as odd if that value is five grams.  This should prompt you to check the density value that you entered for the Aluminium.  Chances are that you input a numerical density value in units of kilograms per meter cubed, when the software assumes units of grams per meter cubed.  If such an oversight were not caught, the stresses computed when the bicycle is vibrated virtually would be low by a factor of one thousand.

An engineer with a strong feeling for units would never accept that a bicycle could be five grams, because this is the mass of the sugar that is in their bowl of cereal.  In short, an engineer should have a sense of the appropriate order of magnitude for just about any measured value of just about any object.  Consuming a book of records forces the reader to develop this sense.

A book of records also serves as an excellent educational tool.  Want a deeper appreciation for history?  Look up the first ever industry (chopping tools, 2.5 million years ago, Ethiopia) or the first ever controlled and sustained aircraft flight (1903, Orville Wright).  One can also brush up on one's geography of our planet.  You probably already knew that water cover 71% of the surface of the Earth, but did you know that this water constitutes 0.022% of the planet's mass?

The book does have one weakness: it ages.  In general, the book ages well, though.  All records that I have listed above come directly from my original 1992 edition.  While some of them may have been broken in the ensuing twenty years, I am certain that none of those that I listed have been shattered.  If someone decided to grow out the fingernails on one of their hands to a combined length of 200 inches, exceeding the previous record by 19 inches, all the power to him (although I pity his spouse).  A record that is broken in this way does not dramatically alter my perception of what constitutes 'long' nails.

The areas in which an up to date edition would differ drastically from a dated edition are in economics and technology.  For example, the most money spent on a TV commercial, as reported in my 1992 edition, is $800,000 US for a 30 second ad during the Super Bowl of the previous year.  In 2012, that same air time costs $3.5 million.

In 1992, the fastest computer in the world had a capacity of 32 million bytes of main memory, or, one thousandth of the storage capacity of a USB key that is now available for less than twenty bucks at a nearby gas station.

If a quick read through any edition of The Guinness Book of World Records will develop one's common sense, and I believe that it can, then perhaps everyone should own one.  I cannot think of a reference book that contains a higher density of useful information.

And then, when we are bored of the useful stuff, we can just flip to the "Human Achievements" section, where we can read that the record number of marriages in the monogamous world is 27, by a man who, as best as he can figure, has fathered 41 children.

I invite readers who own a Guinness Book of their own to leave a comment below describing their "favourite" record.

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