Category Archives: Personal thoughts

Technological or Societal Solutions?

I sometimes have an internal debate on what I think is the best solution to major world problems such as climate change, poverty, hunger, and so on. You hear these issues talked about heavily in political terms as to who’s responsible and why should any one government get involved. Well the answer to why governments should get involved is because they have the most power and ability to instigate change, much more so than any one person or group. But change requires money, effort, and most importantly of all, giving a damn. The last is awfully hard to find these days. Human are very selfish when it comes down to it. Our views are heavily tinted by our immediate surrounding, people, and concerns. So it’s hard to care as much about an abstract concept like climate change or world hunger when you live in a temperature climate, have air conditioning and heating, and plenty of food to eat.

Being an engineer and scientist, I tend to believe that if we only had the correct technology, that these worldwide problems could cease becoming problems altogether. If we can perfect carbon and methane remediation and clean power, there would be no man-made climate change. If we can create super cheap energy and hardy crops, we could push back poverty and hunger. We could save the world if only we had the technology.

But here’s the debate: which is the better way? I realized even if we did have the magic technology, implementing them would eventually run into politics, especially if they threaten some industry’s profit margin. Nothing makes politicians take notice faster than a lobbyist coming to them with a donation and a story about a new threat to their interests. But, in all of history, old ideas, traditionas, and technologies eventually get replaced by newer, better, and more efficient ideas and technologies. For example, The horse and carriage were replaced by the model T and cars once we discovered the internal combustion engine. Now we can go farther for less money. Clothes making also made the transition from old to new long ago. In pre-industrial times, individual tailors and seamstresses made clothes by hand, and most people own only a handful of outfits. Industrialization, the assemblyline, machines, and the computer chip largely killed the clothes-making profession, except for specialists. But in return we can buy shirts, dresses, and pants for very low prices. I imagine during those transition periods, there was a lot of argument and distain for the new technology by those involved and invested in the old ways.

Energy is currently in the transition period I believe. Coal, natural gas, and oil have been the foundation of civilization since they first found you could burn coal and oil. However, we know there is a limited amount of the stuff around. Yes, even the oil companies, which is why they all put some money into looking for new oil sources and new energy technologies. However, they are very dependent on the existing market in fossil fuels to keep their business running and their stockholders happy. At the same time, solar power, wind power, and electric cars are slowly becoming more mainstream and forming a small but growing portion of our global civilization. Various countries have agreed to the Paris Climate Accords which among other things states that we should all try to move towards a larger percent of renewable power and away from fossil fuels. I feel in the next 50-100 years our energy grid will be dominated by renewable energy and electric or fuel cell cars. Even oil companies project that current resources won’t last more than 100-200 years. At that point, they’ll be completely out of business since there will be no oil anywhere, or anywhere reachable. That would seem like a good reason to start in the direction of renewable energy right now and fast. However, remember humans are not only selfish, but short-lived. 100 years sounds like a short time to me, but I know I won’t be around to see it, and neither will all the investors and executives companies. They may have a greater interest in the here and now since what happens 100 years from now doesn’t affect them. That is one of the greatest failings of the human mind and civilization I think. The lack of foresight and empathy with the future may one day damage the planet irrevocably. While I may not be alive in 100 years, my children will be, and then my grandchildren will inherit the world we’re building now, for good or ill. In Eastern culture in general, there is the strong belief that one’s main goal in life is to make life better for your children. My parents sacrificed and worked hard so I could have more opportunities and a better life. My dad always says children should exceed their parents since each generation strives for the next. I also personally believe that the meaning of life is to leave the world a better place than you found it. That’s my general belief for most situations, do more good than harm and leave it better for the future.

So in the end, there is no one magical technological solution to the world’s problems. All solutions require the cooperation of people and thus governments and companies. And as long as people are involved, there will be politics and self interests. As engineers and scientists, we are trained to see the future by learning from the past, so we should strive to not only develop the world saving technologies, but encourage everyone else to keep the future in mind.

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Applying to be an Astronaut

NASA’s astronaut candidate job opening closed a few months ago and they’re reporting over 18,000 applications, the largest number in the history of the space program. I was one of them. It was one of my childhood dreams to be an astronaut. I was always interested in space and I watched a lot of Star Trek. So of course I wanted to be in space and explore space. As I grew older and went to college, I realized I was more interested in the technology and science than just being in space. So if I couldn’t go to space, I’d build the things that took you to space. I ended up doing a Ph.D. in space propulsion and now I teach it in college. But that kid desire to be an astronaut never quite died.

I know now that an astronaut is much more a scientist than an explorer. They’re nothing like TV or movies would make astronauts seem. Most of their days are highly structured with tasks to do and experiments to run. There are dozens of experiments going on at once on board the ISS and the few astronauts have to take care of them all. And they aren’t experts in all of them, so there’s a lot of direction from the ground, following procedures, and reading manuals. So it’s a lot less glamorous that my young self imagined. But my older self is very interested in the science and technology side of space exploration. I guess as we get older we replace youthful fantasy with learned interest.

My chances of being picked over the other 18,000 applicants is very very slim. Nevertheless I asked my wife since if it does happen, things would change, and she’s not a fan of me possibly dying, though the odds are small. But she’s kind of amused by it and we agreed I can apply and we’d discuss it further if I by some chance get selected and past the initial rounds of screening. We’ll see if my childhood dreams come true.

The Trap of the “Science Hammer”

At the most recent AIAA SciTech conference, I met a gentlemen from the Air Force Academy who teaches there and reviews research proposals for the Air Force. He gave a talk to the plasma aerodynamics group on plasma actuators and why those proposals have not been funded much recently. He also raised a point, which is the focus of this post, that plasma is not always the solution to the problem and we as a community should stop using it as a proverbial hammer to hit every problem nail.

First, a little background and explanation. As scientists and researchers, we are all trained in some specialty, whether it’s plasma physics, rocket propulsion, high speed aerodynamics, piston engines, mammalian habitats, insect DNA, etc. Of course some specialties are broader than others. So we tend to do research in our specific areas, or areas that are similar enough that we can bring a part of our experience to bear. The further the research is to our core specialty, the hard it is and less likely others will fund you or trust your results. Yes, there is some bias in science. So this specialty is what I called the “science hammer”. Like a craftsman, we have one or two types of hammers (knowledge) in our tool belt. So when we encounter a science problem, our first thought is to hit it with our hammers. Another way to say that is when you only have a hammer as your tool, then every problem is a nail to be hit.

I have been thinking on this “hammer” and the suggestion the gentlemen at SciTech gave. My hammer is plasma. I sometimes jokingly say plasma can solve all your problems, or I’m always looking for things to point a plasma at. Now plasma is a pretty energy inefficient process by its very nature. Unlike a fire, you have to continuously supply the plasma with energy and fuel to keep it going. The fire will keep burning as long as there’s fuel. Once started, the fire provides its own energy. So in many cases, especially aerospace applications where energy is limited, plasma may not be the best solution. The example the gentleman gave was plasma actuators for flow control on airplane wings. Plasma actuators can improve the flow and reduce drag on wings. But the practical question becomes is it worth it? It takes extra energy to generate and sustain the plasma, and it seems at least for plasma actuators the benefits are not worth the cost.

Now there has been considerable interesting science to come out of the last 15 years of research into plasma actuators. So all is not lost. But the funding agencies have learned a lesson if you will. They’re more cautious about plasma-based solutions since they recognize the issues with plasmas. So in my position as a principle investigator looking for funding, I am not trying to by smarter about what I apply plasma to. It has to be credible, doable, and provide a net benefit. I have also begun to look at way to use plasma not as the solution, but as a diagnostic or tool to study a phenomenon. I’ve been talking with another faculty about using plasma actuators to study flows. Hopefully the advantages of plasma can be brought to bear and without worry about its overall efficiency since it doesn’t have to fly.

2015 Year Look Back and Forward

This is the last post of 2015, the next one will be in January. At the end of each year, I try and think about what happened this year and then plan for what should be done next year, at least professionally. So my job consists of three parts: teaching, research, and service.

Teaching is pretty simple. I get assigned classes, I teach those classes. As long as I don’t fail more than 50% of the class, then I’m doing fine. I have a bit of a perfectionist streak, a desire to fix problems where I see them, and a drive to always do better. So this last year, I may have spent too much time and effort to improve my teaching and courses. Part of me believes there’s no such things as too much time to improve yourself and what you do, but as a tenure-track faculty, teaching is only part of my job, and often the smallest part as seen by my colleagues and supervisors. So in 2016 I will strive to hold the same standards I’ve developed to date, but hold off on putting in extra effort to develop new projects, lessons, or other activities for my classes.

Research is arguably the biggest part of my job, though it’s the one students rarely see. Our research is what brings fame and funding to the university. Unfortunately, research is also not a one man undertaking. While I can teach my courses without assistance from anyone else, I can’t do research at any reasonable rate just by myself. Thus comes in graduate students. As an experimentalist, I am heavily dependent on my graduate students to do the bulk of the research and data collection. My time during the week is often taken up by classes, meetings, and office hours, with very little left for me to personally go into the lab to set up the experiment and get data. This dependence on students means their successes and failures are your successes and failures. unfortunately I’ve had some recent troubles with graduate students and limited successes. This year we have not published a single paper, which is not a good sign. It indicates an unproductive year. In hindsight, it was a bit unproductive. Things got done, but not enough to get publications. I did pick up two new students and lose one student mid degree, so there was quite a bit of change. New students take time to get up to the speed and become productive. We usually say a Masters student can do enough work to write one publication by the end of their two years, at which point they graduate. That’s quite a long build up time, especially on a 5-7 year tenure clock. Ph.D. students have the same build up, but they can keep doing work and writing papers after the first 2 years. So after 6 years, a Ph.D. student can write 4-5 papers, where as a series of 3 Masters students can write 3.

For 2016, my plan is to take that time from teaching and put it into research. I will be at the lab more regularly and even try to do some of my own data collection. I will also push my students harder. There are 4 potential papers that can be written or are being written. On the funding side, there are 4 potential NSF opportunities and 1 NASA in 2016 that I know of. There may be more NASA ones over the year as they are released. DoD funding is harder to get as the funding is generally decided by the program manager instead of a panel. So your research has to align very closely with what the program manager is looking for, and some times it’s hard to get them to tell you what exactly they want. But all you can do is try, and in the mean time continue to do research, get data, and make the next proposal better.

On the service side, I thing I also over committed this year. I am in charge of the college of engineering’s undergraduate research program, editor for the local AIAA section newsletter, member of two AIAA technical committees, and trying to organize short courses for the technical committees. While each of these in of themselves don’t take a lot of time and are sporadic, together they seem to be taking up a significant number of hours each month. While I enjoy doing these activities, they are taking time away from, what else, research. So in 2016, I plan to reduce my service activities and possible drop one or more. Teaching, research, and service is a tough balancing act, and this last year I think I went off the track. So next year I strive to bring everything more in balance to be successful, which typically means more research, always more research.

Catch-22 of Space Ventures

Recently, the Mars Society Convention had a debate between the Mars One co-founder Bas Lansdorp and two of the company’s critics from MIT. Gizmodo had a summary piece with some op-ed. I think the writer came off a bit mean, but I get where she’s coming from. To make sure we’re all on the same page, Mars One is a commercial startup venture that plans to send humans to Mars by 2024 and then every 2 years or so in order to build a colony. They’re probably most famous for their open call for astronaut and the subsequent down-selections that have been going one for a few years now. Now Mars One is a one-way trip, no returns. So these people are knowing volunteering to dedicate the rest of their lives to this mission. That has a certain amount of inspiration, though not everyone agrees. Last year, graduate students at MIT conducted a systems and feasibility analysis of the Mars One plan. Their findings say the astronauts will quickly perish on Mars, whether from starvation, dehydration, destruction of the habitat, break down of equipment, and various other grim scenarios. So as you can imagine, there’s some heated debate and antagonism between the company and the academics. This report is directly hurting the ability of Mars One to raise money to support the development of the necessary technology to prove their goal, which builds confidence and get more funding. And there’s the catch-22 for Mars One, or any commercial technology venture: they need money to develop the technology, but need the technology to build investor confidence so they’ll give money.

For any commercial entity who’s business is based on a product, whether it’s physical or digital, you need something to show potential investors in order to get their confidence. Investors are obviously looking for a return on investment, thus the name. They can invest in established products like toilet paper, but there’s probably very little gain to be had there. In the riskier markets like technology, the internet, and space, there is a greater potential for profit if the company succeeds. But they need to believe you will succeed, and not believe in a take-my-word-for-it manner, but in a data-backed-and-sound-business-strategy manner. That’s what’s currently hurting Mars One, the data is not going their way.

If we’re talking space ventures like Mars One, Planet Labs, Planetary Resources, Rocket Labs, Firefly, etc, then product or service is or requires some advanced technology, like a launch vehicle. Rockets and spacecrafts aren’t cheap. They’re probably one of the most expensive items you can buy that you don’t get to keep. Fancy houses and artwork go for hundreds of millions of dollars, but they get to be enjoyed for years. A rocket costing $50 million is used and lost in a day. And if the first rocket fails, that’s a lot of money down the drain, and no return on investment. So investors are logically wary of such a high risk venture. To help alleviate those fears, the company ideally wants to have the technology developed and tested, a clear plan for moving forward, an existing customer base, and knowledge of what’s the return on investment. But, real life is not so easy. Mars One is missing in all those categories. The necessary technology for in-situ resource utilization, habitats, food growth, and parts manufacturing on Mars are still a ways from being ready. They do have a plan forward, but it’s highly dependent on the technology. I don’t think there is a customer for the trip, since it is one way and they’re not bringing resources back. Thus I don’t know how investors would get a profit.

I don’t know if Mars One will fail or not. I don’t wish for them to fail, for they’re putting a goal out there. And difficult goals is what drives innovation and civilization. But theirs is a cautionary tale for other aerospace startups, especially in the commercial space business. To get funding, you have to demonstrate capability and a high probability of success. Before asking for money, develop the technology, at least part way, to show the potential you have. Of course you need money to do the development. Chicken and the egg problem all over again. The solution? I don’t really know. The best I can come up with is government funding as the government is not in the business of making money. So they can and do fund small enterprises to get them off the ground.

Sunset on Mars

NASA recently release a video of the sun set on Mars as seen by the Curiosity rover.
It’s more a set of time lapsed images as the rover doesn’t take full motion videos. The engineers color corrected the images since the rover’s camera is black and white only. However they know the spectral data of the light, so we know what the color is supposed to be. Thus we see what the actual colors would be of the Martian sunset. Turns out the sunset is blue-ish on Mars. This is caused by the presence of a lot of dust in the Martian atmosphere that scatter the light and makes blue come through instead of red. This is Rayleigh scattering, the same phenomenon that gives up blue skies and red sunsets, kind of the opposite of Mars actually.

Rayleigh scattering is the bouncing of light photons from atoms, molecules, and dust particles. When a photon hits a particle, it can bounce off the particle in a different direction. The wavelength of the deflected photon can change depending on the angle. On Earth, the photons bounce off mostly nitrogen. If the photons are deflected by around 90 degrees, then the light turns blue. If instead the photons are deflected straight forward, then the light turns red. So we have blue days and red sunsets. The Martian atmosphere is mostly CO2, which has different behaviors, thus the blue sunset.

Of all the images that have come back from Mars, these are one of the most inspiring and awe-inducing for me. The desert landscapes of Mars, the geological samples, the chemical data, and all the other data are very interesting scientifically. However they all seem so far removed from our everyday human experiences. But the sunset is something we have all seen many times. Songs, poems, and paintings have been made about the beauty of sunsets. It has romantic connotations. The fact the sun sets on Mars is a given, but it’s probably not a fact we’ve really thought about. It’s a piece, a tie, to our Earthly lives. One day, the first men and women to step foot on Mars will see the sunset and feel a bit more human and closer to home.

We are made of star-stuff

The title is a quote from Carl Sagan’s famous book “Cosmos” which led to the original Cosmos TV show, which led to it’s recent incarnation with Neil deGrasse Tyson. I first read Cosmos one winter break when I was a graduate student. My wife had given it to me as a Christmas present. I very much enjoyed the book as it was a glimpse into history and the future. I like that quote so much it’s included in my Ph.D. dissertation. I feel that it perfectly encompasses the vastness of human life and its relation to the universe. But more on that later.

I recall commenting to my wife later that the book both uplifted and depressed me. The book was written in 1985, less than a decade after the Voyager probes left on their interstellar journey. The Galileo mission was still in the planning stages at the time. Dr. Sagan was thus writing from a time when these and other important space missions were just starting or being planned. He talked about the things these missions would accomplish and what we would learn about the universe. And he was right. It was uplifting to see all that we had accomplished today.

It was also depressing to see all that we had failed to accomplish from the visions of that time. Sagan envisioned a much expanded space exploration effort as well as a greater focus on science. He discussed missions that never occurred. He believed in the continued progress of science and the human drive to learn. But predicting the future is always a loosing game. I doubt at the time he could have predicted the turns and twists the US culture and politics have taken in the last 30 years. Science and space have been demonized as contributing to the degradation of society. Funding for space exploration is ever hard to come by these days. Fewer and fewer citizens are energized by the idea of exploring the universe. They see it as a waste of resources. My belief is that exploration is one of the greatest endeavors we can undertake as a species. It challenges our knowledge, industry, spirit, and ability to work with others. Space exploration brings out the best in people and teaches us more about our place in the universe and gives us tools to control our destiny. Now I think those are some great reason to support space exploration and meet Dr. Sagan’s vision.