Tag Archives: engineering

Tristar Trifecta: The L-1011 and its troublesome engine

The L-1011 has mostly disappeared from the airways but is enjoying a burst of nostalgic appreciation.  Here are some history lessons and some technology lessons, at multiple levels of detail.

Youtube Channel: Mustard

Youtube Channel: The British Library

Youtube Channel: AgentJayZ

Second childhood: Techmoan’s new old tech

You’ve reached “a certain age” when the unaffordable supercosmic products of your youth have gone through at least one cycle of obsolescence and have been rediscovered as charming antiques by succeeding generations.  Vacuum tubes, LPs, cassettes, and laserdiscs are back after a fashion and the prices for old analog are reaching baseball card levels.

Meet Mat from the Merrie Olde.  His oddly named Techmoan blog and Youtube channel feature his charming analyses of old devices in a modern light.  There’s lots of tech but no actual moaning.  The videos are homemade, exceptionally well-crafted, and balance historical perspective with teardowns, light repairs, reviews, and comparisons of old against new where old often wins.  He’s been at it since 2009 but I only learned about him recently.

His presentation of the German Tefifon is a good example:

Youtube Channel: Techmoan

If that scratches an itch, here’s his RetroTech playlist:

The international man of mystery is also a trenchant comedian with a flair for puppets.


Eric Betzig goes deep, again: 3D movies of cellular activity

Eric Betzig‘s lab at the Janelia Research Campus has just released a jaw-dropping high-definition 3D movie of cellular machinery in motion.  Words are not sufficient to describe the beauty of the data and the impact of the method which will soon be made available to researchers interested in using or developing it.

I met the man a few times during my postdoctoral life at Bell Laboratories where he was a research scientist.  An acknowledged star in a building full of brilliant people, his Near-Field Scanning Optical Microscope was considered Nobel worthy.  The Labs went down the tubes a few years later when the MBA visigoths took over.  Betzig left, reinvented himself a couple of times, and came back with even more pathbreaking ideas in microscopy that overcame what he felt were insurmountable limitations of his first breakthrough.  He went to Stockholm in 2014 for the newer inventions and the doors they opened.  The Prize has not slowed him down.

The Janelia public release has details and links to several videos, including the one below.

The technical paper appears in the latest issue of Science Magazine.

Observing the cell in its native state: Imaging subcellular dynamics in multicellular organisms
T. Liu et.al.
Science 360, eaaq1392 (2018). DOI: 10.1126/science.aaq1392
The Abstract is also available through PubMed

Youtube Channel: The Howard Hughes Medical Institute

Calling the shot: Brian Metzger on kilonovae

Soon after LIGO‘s first detection of a black hole-black hole merger, the astronomical community was hinting about a potentially more scientifically  exciting event within the interferometer’s grasp: The merging of two neutron stars. When two dark objects coalesce, the product is unsurprisingly dark. Colliding neutron stars on the other hand might emit light of some kind and the collision product need not necessarily be a black hole. More intriguingly, so-called kilonovae resulting from neutron star collisions have been proposed as the actual origin in our universe of many elements heavier than iron, challenging the conventional wisdom of these coming from supernovae.

Here’s a prescient talk by Prof. Brian Metzger of Columbia University and coiner of the term ‘kilonova’ on the consequences of neutron star binary mergers. He discusses their signatures in the gravitational wave record and across the electromagnetic spectrum to their ultimate role in nuclear synthesis. Given at Harvard on 16 March 2017, it is quite accessible for a technical colloquium presentation. A mere five months later on 17 August 2017, LIGO and its European counterpart VIRGO indeed detected the merger of two neutron stars and set of a flurry of observational activity across the globe and in space which confirmed at least qualitatively the predictions by Metzger and his group.

The details are still confusing.  For example, we can assume that it takes a long time for two neutron stars to form, presumably from the death as a supernova of each of a large, but not too large, binary pair.  These violent events will eject a lot of material into the interstellar medium.  The neutron stars then spiral slowly and combine, releasing a lot of neutrons to stick to light elements, transmuting them up the periodic table through the r-process.  But, where do these light elements come from if the ejecta from each of the progenitor stars has had a very long time to spread? (*)

Harvard’s Edo Berger has a concise summary of the multimessenger gold rush incited by the event in a special issue of Astrophysical Journal Letters.  Many of the papers are free to download.  As an aside, I was acquainted with Edo when he was an undergraduate physics student at UCLA while I was a researcher in the same department.  I had no idea then he’d become one of the Dukes of Earl of  high energy astrophysics.

(*) Addendum 20 April 2019: After a year of futility in not finding an answer to this question, I emailed Prof. Metzger and asked.  In a prompt and gracious reply he said that the ejecta from the merging neutron stars create the seed nuclei required for the r-process.  There are sufficient protons (10-30%) in the ejecta to form nuclei of mass number ~100 within milliseconds.  These then absorb further neutrons within the constraints of beta decay to create very heavy elements within a few seconds.  So,  it seems that neutron stars aren’t neutrons all the way down!

30 May 2020: New video source; prior channel was deleted.

Youtube Channel: CfA Colloquium


Youtube Channel: Kowch737


Lyrical Gangsta: Nature on Tom Lehrer

Tom Lehrer at 90: a life of scientific satire

Andrew Robinson celebrates the high notes in the mathematician’s inimitable musical oeuvre.
Lehrer agrees with mathematician Stanislaw Ulam (one of the builders of the atomic bomb) that rhyming “forces novel associations … and becomes a sort of automatic mechanism of originality”. As he told me in 2008: “If ‘von Braun’ didn’t happen to rhyme with ‘down’ (and a few other words), the most quoted couplet in the song would not exist, and in all probability the song itself would not have been written.”

Closer to home, Nancy Keystone‘s ‘Apollo’ trilogy cast sharp, cynical, brilliant eyes on whitewashing Nazi rocket scientists into America’s space program.

Vimeo Channel: Nancy Keystone


Private Screening: Bell Labs predicts the future

I saw this film in 1992 or 1993 at a screening for employees while finishing my postdoc at Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey. I spent a little over two years there, living in lovely Chatham Township and spending Saturdays enjoying Manhattan. The lab I sat in held the original carbon dioxide laser, nearly thirty years old at the time, and still working. The transistor was invented a couple of doors away, the people who invented Unix were at the other end of a long corridor, and a few future Nobel laureates had their labs in-between. I am still amazed that I got that position and wistful that I didn’t do more with the opportunity.

There was a Q&A session with the speaker who introduced the film and who was participating in the work that underpinned this eerily accurate vision of an always-on, always-connected world. I asked if there was enough (data) bandwidth to support even a small fraction of this. It was the era of low-speed dialup modems and the Internet was limited to universities and academically-oriented labs. His answer, “I guess there will have to be.” A few forward-thinkers had the smarts to set about building that infrastructure, bit by bit. I lacked the foresight to invest even a small amount in any of them.

And so, everyday, off to work I go.

Via the AT&T Tech Channel

Industrial Chic: From when copying was new

There’s a category of Youtube channel dedicated to fixing up old mostly public-domain videos from Prelinger and similar archives and making them available to broad audiences.  Jeff Quitney is one of the best at this along with Bel99TV and PeriscopeFilm.

Here’s a little bit of 1965 techno-cool courtesy of Xerox Corporation.

Via The Handy(Jam) channel at the Internet Archive.
(Link updated 3/22/19 after the deletion of Jeff Quitney’s Youtube Channel)

Elbphilharmonie opens

Congratulations and Big Ups to the City of Hamburg.  Ten years after groundbreaking, the striking Elbphilharmonie opens for concerts in a hall designed by Yasuhisa Toyota and appropriate fanfare.

It’s an impressive construction project.  Partial reality and full animations below.

About halfway: Youtube channel MKTimelapse

The grand conception: Youtube channel Elbphilharmonie Hamburg