Imagine giving a bunch of college students free reign to design and build a race car from scratch and then letting them drive it themselves. It doesn’t seem like today’s risk-averse institutions would ever allow such a thing to exist, but somehow, it does. It’s called Formula SAE.
In the four years I competed, I saw a driver catch on fire, a wheel fall off, and a crash that bent a car’s frame. But bless whoever wrote the liability waivers because it was, without a doubt, the most impactful engineering education I’ve had.
For me it was an ideal education, instilling a healthy fear of mistakes while giving me the space to make them. Long live FSAE.
The most clicked link from last week's issue (~15% of opens) was an explanation of the persistent and more or less meaningless Important Battery Message that appears after replacing an iPhone battery. In the Members' Slack, we've been chatting about the ROI of various college majors. Studying engineering is a safe bet for financial returns.
Planning & Strategy.
- There were no liability waivers in Babylon. Under the Code of Hammurabi, punishment was straightforward:
If a builder builds a house for a man and does not make its construction firm, and the house which he has built collapses and causes the death of the owner of the house, that builder shall be put to death.
Assigning responsibility is not so simple in modern times. In the aftermath of the Surfside condo collapse, with so many people involved over so many years, criminal charges are unlikely and the allocation of compensation is being bitterly contested.
- Being killed by your own invention has a beautiful simplicity; rewards and consequences are in perfect balance. In the last two years, a YouTube-taught inventor was killed by his self-built helicopter and, more famously, Mad Mike Hughes died trying to prove the Earth was flat in a steam rocket. Though, according to his PR guy, the flat Earth bit was just a publicity stunt. The GOAT, in my opinion, is Otto Lilienthal, who was among the first to develop a curved airfoil and tested his gliders by jumping off hills. His groundbreaking book, Birdflight as the Basis of Aviation, inspired the Wright Brothers. On his last flight, his glider took a nose dive, breaking his neck. His heroic, dying words were allegedly, “Sacrifices must be made!”
- Not all homemade aviation experiments end in tragedy. Some are hilarious tales of perseverance against the authorities.
- As I’m sure all of you can relate, it’s hard to wear a helmet over a turban. Tough Turban aims to replace the helmet by incorporating impact protection into the turban itself.
- A pleasing visualization of the consolidation of the aerospace industry.
Making & Manufacturing.
- Thicker things are harder to bend. Think corrugated cardboard vs cardstock, penne vs bucatini, or a cookiewich vs a cookie. When designing a composite part, that can be an issue. Carbon fiber’s strength means that you don’t need to use much of it, but less material means thinner parts, and thinner parts means a floppier structure. Enter Nomex honeycomb, used to space out layers of carbon fiber - turning the carbon into the bread of a sandwich panel and adding a significant amount of stiffness.
But if the idea is just to space out the carbon fiber, why use a honeycomb shape? Why not just a simple grid pattern? I haven’t found a definitive answer, but it might have to do with the honeycomb conjecture, which asserts that hexagons are the most efficient way to split a plane into equal areas. Or maybe it’s down to a circus owner. From JE Gordon’s Structures: Or Why Things Don't Fall Down:
One day, towards the end of 1943, a circus proprietor called George May called to see me at Farnborough. After he had told me several Gerald Durrell-type stories about the difficulties of keeping monkeys in traveling circuses, he produced something which looked like a cross between a book and a concertina. When he pulled on the ends of this invention, the whole thing opened out like one of those coloured-paper festoons which people use for Christmas decorations. It was in fact a sort of paper honeycomb of very lightweight but of quite surprising strength and stiffness…This must have been one of the relatively few occasions in history when a group of aircraft engineers have been seriously tempted to throw their collective arms around the neck of a circus proprietor and kiss him...This material was very successful and was used in the cores of sandwiches for all kinds of military purposes.
- Bees make their honeycomb by creating circular cells before heating the wax, allowing it to flow into the familiar hexagonal shape.
- An engaging, and very detailed, series of articles about pre-modern steel and iron production. It turns out that iron was easier to find than video games might lead you to believe. With open pit mines (as opposed to underground mines), the modern difficulties of mine ventilation and drainage were avoided entirely.
- A short conversation with self-taught architect Didi Contractor about her mud and clay buildings in the foothills of the Himalayas, whose construction and aesthetics aim for harmony with nature.
Maintenance, Repair & Operations.
- Every New Year’s Day, two National Hockey League teams face off in the Winter Classic, an outdoor game at a baseball or football stadium. At the Cotton Bowl in Texas in 2020 the rink was made by pumping glycol through a refrigeration truck to slowly freeze 20,000 gallons of water.
- Regular housekeeping by astronauts keeps microbes from wreaking havoc on the Space Station.
Distribution & Logistics.
- I cannot recommend the British TV show Clarkson’s Farm, with Top Gear’s Jeremy Clarkson, highly enough. It’s a hugely entertaining, eye opening look at the realities of modern farming. Plus, the show features Gerald, a man who’s difficult to describe and harder to comprehend.
- It turns out that the companies marketing ugly produce as a way to reduce food waste is just that - marketing.
- The concept of the six degrees of separation has been around for decades. It says that any two people are six or fewer social connections away from each other. With the help of social media, that number has dropped to below four.
Inspection, Testing & Analysis.
- An interesting read about the ideas and issues in Renaissance Europe that led to the understanding of atmospheric pressure. Evangelista Torricelli’s experiments with mercury in the mid 1600s disproved the prevailing ideology - Aristotle’s horror vacui, or “nature abhors a vacuum” - and paved the way for new technology like thermometers and steam engines.
- Rolls Royce is building The Spirit of Innovation, a plane that it hopes will become the world’s fastest all-electric aircraft. Flight testing kicked off a few weeks ago.
- A fascinating look back from 2005 at the irrationality of the Space Shuttle program, much of it driven by requirements determined by the Air Force, like launching spy satellites into polar orbit and capturing a Soviet satellite.
- A good explainer on how owls fly so quietly. Also, see how the Shinkansen train design took cues from owl flight in 2021-07-19.
- With parachutes made of silk threads, spiders can travel in jet streams for more than 25 days.
- A musician’s duet with the Golden Gate Bridge.
- A detailed paper replica of the Heidelberg Letterpress.