The pendulum of modern engineering has swung to asserting that digital models can always represent reality faster, cheaper, and better than any physical manifestation of it. Mockups, prototypes, and test articles are out, “Digital twins” and augmented reality are in. More’s the pity. While much can be represented in CAD/CAM, the compute horsepower required to mimic the real world drains budgets as fast as it drains the power grid. Very few have the savvy to accurately represent the range of physical phenomena in bits and then know when the model can be trusted. The craftsmen who enabled the preceding revolutions are in retreat and in exchange we get ever increasing development times and costs despite the glowing promises of hype men and the C-suites that golf with them.
In that spirit, Oregonian Peter Dibble looks back fondly at Modulex, a Lego spinoff for architects to present concepts to their clients. An ingenious change in dimension yielded bricks ideally suited to metric and Imperial drawing scales. Sliceable parts, slopes, ridges, and custom colors yielded a system that grew well beyond its original intent into project management and signage. A Mark-1 eyeball can look at, around, and into such a physical representation and get some idea of its strengths and weaknesses. Digital design software and Lego’s surprising hostility to the product line unfortunately sealed Modulex’s fate as a modeling tool. The company lives on for signmaking.
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:
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.
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
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.