Monday, December 30, 2013

2013 Year in Review

As I usually do at the end of a year, this post summarizes some of the exciting science and engineering stories of 2013 and provides a quick status of this blog, The Engineer's Pulse.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Learning is Not Fun

I had coffee with a professor of engineering this week and the subject of teaching came up.  The man across from me, with far more experience in education than I, said something that stopped me in my tracks: "Learning is not fun."  From his point of view, I must have looked like a deer in headlights.  After careful consideration though, I now agree with this simple statement.

Interestingly, when children enter the education system, we tell them just the opposite.  Experts in education proudly chant, "Learning is fun!"  But, it's a lie.

Learning is a lot of things.  It is empowering.  It is possibly the greatest investment one can make in oneself.  But when someone tells you that learning is fun, they do not speak for the majority of people.

Consider a person who wishes to play the drums.  They think, "It would be fun to play the drums at a high level."  While this is true, the process one must undertake to transform oneself into a professional musician is arduous.  One must focus for countless hours to train the body and mind through repetitive exercises.  Learning is hard work, and hard work is not enjoyable for most people.  In this context, the joy of life may well be the destination and not the journey.

This is a hard pill for me to swallow.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Senses and Sensors

"If you had to choose, would you rather be deaf or blind?"  This was a fairly common question that kids asked each other when I was growing up.  I think my answer was "deaf", and I think it still is today.

When we have all of our senses, we often take them for granted, forgetting that there would be absolutely no way to perceive reality without them.  The least important senses in the modern world are probably a tie between smell and taste.  Although, I can imagine a time when these were necessary to correctly judge whether or not something was safe to eat.

I would argue that the single most important sense, however, is touch.  This one is probably taken for granted more than the others, and it actually encompasses so much of our interaction with the world.  Unlike the other four senses, which are local, this sense is global.  We have countless receptors all over our body sending information to our brain.  In particular, these receptors measure temperature and pressure: two critical inputs to safely navigate life.

In truth, sense of touch is not really an appropriate term.  We never actually touch anything.  inter-molecular lattice of which our skin is composed actually becomes more compact, and resists this departure from the equilibrium that preceded it.  It is for this reason that a "push force" is actually an electromagnetic force.  When we press our fingertips against something we cannot see, we judge it to be soft or firm based not on what it does, but rather what it does to us.  A given force per unit area at the contact causes our fingertips to deform slightly (to strain), and our internal pressure sensors inform us about what we are "touching".  When we "touch" other things, weak bonds also form between the atoms on our fingertips and those on the surfaces they are in contact with.  This can actually allow us to pull things too via static friction.