Abraham Wald’s Problem Solving Lesson Is To Seek What’s Not There

You may not know the name Abraham Wald, but he has a very valuable lesson you can apply to problem solving, engineering, and many other parts of life. Wald worked for the Statistical Research Group (SRG) during World War II. This was part of a top secret organization in the United States that applied elite mathematical talent to help the allies win the war. Near Columbia University, mathematicians and computers — the human kind — worked on problems ranging from how to keep an enemy plane under fire longer to optimal bombing patterns.

One of Wald’s ways to approach problem was to look beyond the data in front of him. He was looking for things that weren’t there, using their absence as an additional data point. It is easy to critique things that are present but incorrect. It is harder to see things that are missing. But the end results of this technique were profound and present an object lesson we can still draw from today.

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Mary Sherman Morgan, Rocket Fuel Mixologist

In the fall of 1957, it seemed as though the United States’ space program would never get off the ground. The USSR had launched Sputnik in October, and this cemented their place in history as the first nation in space. If that weren’t bad enough, they put Sputnik 2 into orbit a month later.

By Christmas, things looked even worse. The US had twice tried to launch Navy-designed Vanguard rockets, and both were spectacular failures. It was time to use their ace in the hole: the Redstone rocket, a direct descendant of the V-2s designed during WWII. The only problem was the propellant. It would never get the payload into orbit as-is.

The US Army awarded a contract to North American Aviation (NAA) to find a propellant that would do the job. But there was a catch: it was too late to make any changes to the engine’s design, so they had to work with big limitations. Oh, and the Army needed it two days before yesterday.

The Army sent a Colonel to NAA to deliver the contract, and to personally insist that they put their very best man on the job. And they did. What the Army didn’t count on was that NAA’s best man was actually a woman with no college degree.

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Better Living Through Science: Why Your Kids Probably Aren’t Getting Measles

Oddly, there’s been a few recent outbreaks of measles. It struck me how when I was a kid, a few hundred kids getting measles wouldn’t have been news at all. However, even a handful makes the news now, since in 2000 the Center for Disease Control declared measles eradicated in the United States.

So how can an eradicated disease come back? How did we eradicate it to start with? The answers tell a pretty interesting tale of science applying to everyday life.

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The 1859 Carrington Event

Like many Victorian gentlemen of means, Richard Carrington did not need to sully himself with labor; instead, he turned his energies to the study of natural philosophy. It was the field of astronomy to which Carrington would apply himself, but unlike other gentlemen of similar inclination, he began his studies not as the sun set, but as it rose. Our star held great interest for Carrington, and what he saw on its face the morning of September 1, 1859, would astonish him. On that morning, as he sketched an unusual cluster of sunspots, the area erupted in a bright flash as an unfathomable amount of energy stored in the twisted ropes of the Sun’s magnetic field was released, propelling billions of tons of star-stuff on a collision course with Earth.

Carrington had witnessed a solar flare, and the consequent coronal mass ejection that would hit Earth just 17 hours later would result in a geomagnetic storm of such strength that it would be worldwide news the next day, and would bear his name into the future. The Carrington Event of 1859 was a glimpse of what our star is capable of under the right circumstances, the implications of which are sobering indeed given the web of delicate connections we’ve woven around and above the planet.

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Seymour Cray, Father Of The Supercomputer

Somewhere in the recesses of my memory there lives a small photograph, from one of the many magazines that fed my young interests in science and electronics – it was probably Popular Science. In my mind I see a man standing before a large machine. The man looks awkward; he clearly didn’t want to pose for the magazine photographer. The machine behind him was an amazing computer, its insides a riot of wires all of the same color; the accompanying text told me each piece was cut to a precise length so that signals could be synchronized to arrive at their destinations at exactly the right time.

My young mind was agog that a machine could be so precisely timed that a few centimeters could make a difference to a signal propagating at the speed of light. As a result, I never forgot the name of the man in the photo – Seymour Cray, the creator of the supercomputer. The machine was his iconic Cray-1, the fastest scientific computer in the world for years, which would go on to design nuclear weapons, model crashes to make cars safer, and help predict the weather.

Very few people get to have their name attached so firmly to a product, let alone have it become a registered trademark. The name Cray became synonymous with performance computing, but Seymour Cray contributed so much more to the computing industry than just the company that bears his name that it’s worth taking a look at his life, and how his machines created the future.

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Irène Joliot-Curie And Artificial Radioactivity

When Marie and Pierre Curie discovered the natural radioactive elements polonium and radium, they did something truly remarkable– they uncovered an entirely new property of matter. The Curies’ work was the key to unlocking the mysteries of the atom, which was previously thought to be indivisible. Their research opened the door to nuclear medicine and clean energy, and it also led to the development of nuclear weapons.

Irène Joliot-Curie, her husband Frédéric, and many of their contemporaries were completely against the use of nuclear science as a weapon. They risked their lives to guard their work from governments hell-bent on destruction, and most of them, Irène included, ultimately sacrificed their health and longevity for the good of society. Continue reading “Irène Joliot-Curie And Artificial Radioactivity”