“That’s an engineer’s solution!”

I’m listening to the audio version of a very cool talk given by astronaut-turned-artist Alan Bean. (Skip the hokey intro, though, and jump in at minute 7 when he starts.)

He tells great stories about the space program, but also offers wider perspectives on life, art, and human potential.

Along the way, he tells an amusing anecdote about the famous picture of Neil Armstrong planting an American flag onto the moon’s surface. Armstrong told Bean it had been a scary moment, and Bean asked why. Armstrong said (as paraphrased by Bean):

Well, I couldn’t get that flag into the ground, like in training. Up there, those particles in the dirt aren’t rounded like regular sand. On Earth I would just do like that, and it would go in. But up there I did like that and it didn’t go in.

I imagined that when I let go, it would fall into the dirt, and people all over the world would see the American flag fall into the dirt. So I tipped it back until the center of gravity was over the hole. Then I put a little dirt around it. I knew that if I could get it balanced, and get away from it, that without any wind it would stay balanced. So that’s what we did. We got away from it, and we never got close to it again.

Bean adds: “It probably blew over when they launched, but it didn’t make any difference. That’s an engineer’s solution!”

What a great hack!

Today on a conference call I was reminded of another. A few years ago, in an airport, I saw a guy with a cellphone in one hand and a payphone in the other. His ear, brain, and mouth were trying to bridge two phone networks together, it wasn’t working well, and he was visibly frustrated. Finally he removed his head from between the two phones, stuck them together, and reversed them earphone-to-microphone, so the two parties were talking directly to each other.

My conference call today presented a different version of that scenario. It was scheduled as a VOIP call, then was switched to a POTS call, but not everybody got the memo. So I made the POTS call. And since I have a podcast rig that lets me do POTS calls through my computer, using the same headset I use for VOIP, I made the call that way.

Then people started to show up on both the POTS side and the VOIP side. I realized that, unexpectedly, I was hearing both sides and they were hearing me. Both were being conveyed through my computer’s audio subsystem. I was just like the guy with the cellphone on one ear and the payphone on the other.

It would have been cool to do the same kind of earphone-to-microphone hack. But before I got the chance to try, the VOIP folks hung up and dialed back in on the POTS side.

Oh well, maybe next time.

Recovering forgotten methods of construction

After feasting on audio podcasts for years, I realized that I don’t always want somebody else’s voice in my head while running, biking, and hiking. So I went on an audio fast for a couple of months. But now I’m ready for more input, and I’m once again reminded how wonderful it is to be able to bring engaging minds with me on my outdoor excursions.

One of my companions on yesterday’s hike was John Ochsendorf, a historian and structural engineer who explores the relevance of ancient and sometimes forgotten construction methods, like Incan suspension bridges woven from grass. One of his passions is Guastavino tile vaulting, a system that was patented in 1885. Although widely used in many notable structures — including Grand Central Station — Ochsendorf says that some of these structures have been torn down and rebuilt conventionally because modern engineers no longer understand how the Guastavino system works, and cannot evaluate its integrity.

This theme of forgotten knowledge echoes something I heard in Amory Lovins’ epic MAP/Ming lecture series. He describes a large government building in Washington, DC, that was made of stone and cooled by a carefully-designed pattern of air flow. The cooling system wasn’t completely passive, though. You had to open and close windows in a particular sequence throughout the day. Now that building is cooled by hundreds of window-mounted air conditioners. I’m sure our modernn expectation of extreme cooling is part of the reason why. But Lovins also says that air conditioning became necessary because people forgot how to operate the building.

I love the idea of recovering — and scientifically validating — forgotten knowledge. That’s what John Ochsendorf’s research group does. One of his students, Joe Dahmen, did a project called Rammed Earth — a long-term experiment to see if that ancient construction method could actually work in present-day New England. John Ochsendorf says:

Historical methods of construction that are very green, very local, may create beautiful low-energy architecture, we’ve forgotten how to do them. So we have to rediscover them, and do testing to prove to clients and building owners that you can use these methods. And it’s a good example of MIT’s motto of mind and hand. We don’t like to just read about rammed earth walls, we like to get dirty and build them.

Very cool. I think the MacArthur Foundation invested wisely in this guy.