Category Archives: Manufacturing

Engineered Myths: ‘Metamorphoses’ at A Noise Within

Clockwise from center: Erika Soto, Trisha Miller, Rafael Goldstein, Cassandra Marie Murphy.
Photo by Craig Schwartz, courtesy A Noise Within Theatre and Lucy Pollak Public Relations

ANW’s tribute to myth, art, and engineering is both visually dazzling and a chutzponic choice for this temporary breather from the pandemic.  Water is everywhere – onstage and on the audience – as a gifted cast seamlessly weaves eight stories  and a coda from Ovid  to impressive stagecraft.  The play is sufficiently well-known that there’s no point in recapping the fables-for-grownups  by Mary Zimmerman,  a brand unto herself.   Locally, Stephen Legawiec’s long-departed and much lamented Ziggurat Theatre Ensemble did exceptional service to myth.  The Sacred Fools and Coeurage also deliver technical miracles on a budget.  Zimmerman ups the ante requiring an onstage pool central to her theme.  ANW has built the resources over the years to afford the rights, the engineering, and the resident ensemble to pull it all off.  The costs must be astronomical especially for a barely four week run, an oddly appropriate leap-of-faith in art over economics.

Nicole Javier (top) and Rafael Goldstein (bottom).
Photo by Craig Schwartz, courtesy A Noise Within Theatre and Lucy Pollak Public Relations

On top of the usual artistic concerns and choices, director Julia Rodriguez-Elliott has to see to the safety of her performers who are feet, knees, and backs in the water as much as they are out of it.  This is no mean feat given costumes (Garry Lennon), props (Shen Heckel),  walking continuously on a wet stage, and a disease spread by droplets.   The company has hewn to its resident artist model (six of the nine performers) although it seems to have gone away from its roots in repertory.  It is interesting to note the changing of the guard having followed the company closely in the 90s to mid 2000s and sporadically thereafter.  Geoff Elliott remains a constant of the motion with Rafael Goldstein and Erika Soto now regular members along with unfamiliar faces with extensive company and classical credits.  That Shakesperean training pays off handsomely with uniformly rich, resonant, and nuanced voices inhabiting instead of reciting the text.  It’s a heady mix of comedy, drama, pathos, and bathos.  Trisha Miller is excellent as Alcyone,  Sydney A. Mason as a nasty Aphrodite, and DeJuan Christopher as Ceyx.  Elliott is all the fathers; Pythonesque as Helios negotiating with Phaeton (Kasey Mahaffy) as well as  Midas and Cinyras navigating daughter problems.  The physical demands are great as the cast have to carry one another in and out of the water throughout the piece where one slip could end many careers.  The level of trust engendered by long and close collaboration must be off the charts and hard to conceive with a team assembled for one production.

But, oh, that engineering – Francois-Pierre Couture (design), Ken Booth (lighting), and Robert Oriol (sound) – deserves a loud, two-syllable, “Damn!”  Even if we take the pool  for granted, electricity, water, and people don’t mix.  This constrains the high powered lights to surround the stage and there again from safe a distance – yet nothing essential is in shadow.   Glowing orbs are undoubtedly enabled by LEDs.  Their collective play off the water and onto the walls are a splendid touch – carrying the audience along waves of action floating on Oriol’s effective yet unobtrusive soundscape.  And we should not take any of this for granted.  Going from page to stage is a tough artistic job but no easier than taking a technical concept through design, build, test, and delivery.  ANW’s timelapse shows the large uncredited crew that made it happen and glimpses the kind of backstage preparation area accessible to very few of the city’s theatremakers.  Yes, there are a couple of songs but … what are you going to do?  Barring extension, only five performances remain so act accordingly.

Note bene: While there are no bad seats at ANW, the raised stage does obscure the water’s surface from the front rows.  There is a benefit (and certainly no harm) in going to the middle or even the back of the house.  Those up front will get splashed.

Youtube Channel: A Noise Within

Metamorphoses
Based on the Myths of Ovid
Written and originally directed by Mary Zimmerman

Directed by Julia Rodriguez-Elliott
for A Noise Within Theatre Company
3352 E Foothill Blvd. 
Pasadena, CA 91107

Thursdays through Sundays, closing 5 June 2022
Two performances Saturdays
Running time: Ninety minutes without intermission
Performance times vary, see the theatre’s website for details

Proof of vaccination/booster required, Masks must be worn inside the theatre

Tickets through the ANW Online Box Office
or
626.356.3100

He who keeps cool will collect (photons): Christian Ready on the JWST instrument package

Sports Illustrated quoted this Japanese proverb back in 1975 in conjunction with Cal’s championship men’s gymnastic team of that era.  The adage abides with the James Webb Space Telescope now in its halo orbit around the Sun-Earth L2 point, its optics and instruments slowly cooling to their ultimate cryogenic temperatures, the better to collect the faint signs of heat from the early universe.  Little has been said to the public about the instruments nestled in the big box behind the 6.5-m primary mirror.  This is perhaps not surprising.  There are no secrets here, just that the real science goals and the optical engineering to meet them are fiendishly complex.  Friendly Neighborhood Astronomer Christian Ready tackles the challenge, explaining where the precious photons will go and what will happen to them once they arrive.  The comment section clamors for more detail on the MIRI cryocooler which will take the mid-Infrared Instrument’s focal plane array below 7K.  Here’s to hoping for a full video on this beast, built across the hall from me, and on which I spent a couple of weeks when the team was shorthanded.

Youtube Channel: Launchpad Astronomy

 

Bird Up: JWST completes major deployments

As the man said after the Eagle landed: “You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We’re breathing again. Thanks a lot.”

The James Webb Space Telescope, largely designed, built, and tested at Space Park in Redondo Beach, has launched, raised itself from the spacecraft, deployed its 5 layer sunshield, and put its primary and secondary mirrors into place.  It will take another few months for the telescope to cool in the shade and then to commission the instruments before science measurements can begin.

It has been a long and contentious wait but the magnitude of this accomplishment is worth celebrating.

Youtube Channel: Northrop Grumman

Piece of the Action: The crazy engineering of the piano key

Playing the piano is damnably hard. I have accepted that I will never practice consistently or wisely enough to reach my original wildly unrealistic goals of competence and am contenting myself with slow progress and occasional discoveries.   Coaxing a good sound requires talent, coordination, flexibility, and freedom of movement.  There’s nothing that can be done about the first item but occasionally something in the joints unsticks enabling a small improvement in the rest.   I feel kinship with weekend athletes who get that occasional moment of grace amid hours of futility.

One of the many frustrations is pressing a key in the same place with the same pressure five times in a row and hearing no sound two of those times.  The hammer misses the strings by a fraction of a millimeter and flops back with a click and a dull thud.  This makes any kind of phrasing next to impossible for the duffer.  He either settles for good enough or goes nuts trying to adapt as the instrument itself changes with the time of day and the weather.  It never bothers the professionals who figure it out on the fly.

The piano action itself is a bizarre marvel of wood, felt, physics, and prayer.  It is surprising that it works at all and there are eighty eight of the bloody things that have to work consistently.  It is a lot to ask, perhaps too much.  Robert Grijalva of the University of Michigan explains it in painstaking detail  using a model of his own invention.  For those with less time, a Dutch animator posting as Hoe Ishetmoegelijk (hoe is het moegelijk = how is it possible) has a concise summary.

Youtube Channel: Robert Grijalva

Youtube Channel: Hoe Ishetmoegelijk

Backyard history: Southern California’s impact on astronomy

Silicon Valley has reshaped the earth, Hollywood has driven our perceptions of it, and not always for the better.  Less well known is the outsized role California has played in understanding our universe.   Mt. Wilson, Mt. Palomar, and their astronomers have had a Copernican impact on where we stand in the grand scheme of things.  The word ‘vision’ gets bandied about a lot these days but George Ellery Hale had it in spades.  Here’s how the two observatories that housed Hubble, Humason, ShapleyZwicky, Baade, Rubin, and Schmidt came to be.

The third video from Corning’s Museum of Glass shows that the path to science is not always smooth and that learning from mistakes is the norm.  The original 200 inch pyrex disk for the Palomar primary did not go according to plan and had to be recast.  The second attempt succeeded and even so, it took ten years of painstaking grinding and polishing at Caltech before it was ready for use.

Youtube Channel: Palomar Observatory

Youtube Channel: Irish Astronomy

Youtube Channel: Corning Museum of Glass

 

Spectral response: The science and emotion of color

The web’s archive of older industrial films is a recurring delight.  Jam Handy, Coronet, and other firms crafted these with an attention to detail, calm explanation, and rigorous science that is harder(*) to find today when most equivalents are about sales rather than fundamentals.  Jeff Quitney has uploaded a wonderful 1954 cleaned-up film to his Vimeo page on color theory and practice by the Interchemical Corporation.  It begins with the importance of color to society – especially in packaging goods and people – and then gives a marvelous account of the optics involved.   I’ve worked in the field for years but I learned to see things (pun intended) differently thanks to it.

The second film from 2016 looks at color in packaging through its emotional impact and its influence on design and designers.  ‘Color In Sight’  resembles like Hustwit’s ‘Helvetica.’  A number of prominent designers talk about how they use and think about color in order to evoke a response, surface a memory, or reveal a part of the spectrum to the color-blind.   I have no idea what I’d say to a nail-polish maker but Suzi Weiss-Fischmann (8m18s in) comes off  as a fun seatmate on a long plane trip.  I had a similar feeling about  Helvetica’s Paula Scher.   Interestingly, it is produced by TeaLeaves, a Canadian company specializing in very high-end teas for hotels.  Judging by their Youtube page, they must spend a fortune on short films – many of which have little outward bearing on their products.  I’ve never understood the appeal of tea but the videos are well worth a look.

(*) But not impossible by any means.

Vimeo Channel: Jeff Quitney

 

Youtube Channel: TeaLeaves

 

It was the Dukes: Balls for Test Cricket

Baseballs are one-and-done, discarded after even the merest nick or scrape.  Cricket balls  are used continuously and degrade progressively after countless bounces off the pitch and strokes of the batFast bowlers start off with the new ball giving way to medium pacers and finally the slow bowlers take over when the damage has been done and make the ball dance.  Crafting the classic red balls for  Test Matches is a fascinating blend of art and manufacture – Dilip Jajodia explains.

Youtube Channel: Dukes Cricket

Dicta Prius: Redondo Beach’s Hybrid History

Page 1 of TRW’s Hybrid Engine patent, submitted on 17 March 1969 and issued 2 March 1971 (Click to enlarge)

It has been fifty years since a group of engineers submitted what would become United States Patent 3566717. Entitled “Power train using multiple power sources,” Baruch Berman, George Gelb, Neil Richardson, and Tsih Wang of then-TRW in still Redondo Beach described the hybrid gas/electric vehicle. As a satisfied Prius owner since 2012 and likely repeat customer, I only recently learned that the core engine technology was invented a mile from my house and possibly yards from my office.

In those seven years of hybrid ownership, I’ve often wondered what actually goes on under the hood.  Niels Blaauw offers a charming overview of older implementations of the engine and drivetrain.  Next, Professor John Kelly of Weber State University dives deeply into the innards of the transaxle that’s in my generation of Prius.   His WeberAuto channel is a gearhead’s goldmine.

Youtube Channel: Niels Blaauw 

Youtube Channel: Weber Auto

 

Scrubbing bubbles: The pros and cons of cavitation

We routinely use ultrasonic cleaners to decontaminate all kinds of surfaces.  A little solvent, some buzzing, and jewelry, electronic parts, and pen nibs get degunked effectively.  Cavitation is responsible.  It is also responsible for damaging surfaces such as ship propellers and pump impellers.  The first video explains the physical chemistry behind the process and its (mostly) destructive effects.  The second shows it applied to cleaning vegetables which, surprisingly, is a research problem funded by the National Science Foundation.  Both videos show closeups of bubble collapse making the cleaning/damage mechanism much easier to understand.

Youtube Channel: IET Institute for Energy Technology

Youtube Channel: National Science Foundation

Addendum 7 April 2019: More detailed super-slowmo  videos from the EPFL group featured in the first video.
Source: CAVITATION BUBBLES IN VARIABLE GRAVITY

Addendum 25 September 2020:  EPFL has reorganized its webpages and the cavitation videos have disappeared.  Here is an American Physical Society report on that research.

Youtube Channel: APS Physics

Maintaining standards: The triple-point cell

Our society depends on standards in countless, mostly invisible ways.   If we can’t agree on how to measure weight, length, temperature, or time we can kiss manufacturing and our manufactured world with its specified, engineered, and interchangeable parts goodbye.   Actually creating and maintaining these standards is hard and the methods change over the years.  The meter was once defined in relation to earthly distances until the realization that the earth changes over time.  Now it is defined in relation to the speed of light which we are pretty sure does not.  The second used to be defined in terms of the day, now it is based on a fundamental property of the cesium atom.  The kilogram has just been redefined in terms of Planck’s constant which then turns into a combination of the second and the meter.

Making any of these measurements is difficult and requires a lot of fancy equipment, often involving lasers, vacuum chambers, electromagnets, and/or racks of electronics.  Here’s how NIST’s new F2 atomic clock works schematically and here’s a package from its inventor on the details.   As the F2 becomes a practical albeit sophisticated standard, even fancier methods are under development for the future.

The Kelvin, fundamental unit of temperature, is a nice exception to this complexity.  It is defined in relation to the triple point of water; that temperature at which the liquid, solid, and vapor phases of isotopically controlled, gas and contaminant-free water are in equilibrium.  Measure this and the Kelvin is 1/273.16 of that.   The aptly named triple point cell requires appropriate water, a skilled glassblower, and some patience.   Thermometers can be calibrated against this standard within and across laboratories.

The Fluke Corporation, despite its name, has long been a respected supplier of a wide variety of test and measurement equipment and they sell such a triple point cell.  In the right hands, it can allow the temperature of 0.01C (the Centigrade and Kelvin are equivalent) to be measured with an uncertainty better than ± 0.0001 °C.  Here’s Fluke’s Matt Newman showing how it is done and not a laser to be seen.

Addendum 20 February 2019: The Kelvin has also been redefined as of November 2018.  It is now tied to Boltzmann’s constant, k.  NIST says that not much will change for the moment since the triple point cell is a known, reliable tool.