Archive for 2011

Why the Mythbusters Newton’s Cradle failed

10 December 2011

What with the Mythbusters having a bit of a mishap this week (a vast understatement by the way, and thank goodness no one was injured), folks have likely forgotten about their most elaborate and ambitious project of the current season: the supersized Newton’s Cradle. The thing was enormous, consisting of giant orbs hung from steel girders suspended over an empty drydock. It was an awesome concept.

But it was also a dismal failure.

Why? Well, there’s the inherent difficulty of precisely aligning such a massive structure such that the balls are in a perfectly straight line and a minimum of energy is lost to sideways motion. This was what much of Adam’s and Jamie’s fine-tuning addressed—but try as they might, they couldn’t get the giant clack-clacking effect they’d hoped for.

An in-depth analysis on Wired goes into the physics of a Newton’s Cradle, and what might have gone wrong, but ultimately punts a definitive conclusion by stating that “the camera angle wasn’t the best for analysis.” Now, I am not a professional physicist, but I think a hint at the real problem may be summed up in one comment in that Wired article: “It seems that these balls are not elastic.”

Right. See, the balls they used were not the solid steel balls of an ordinary Newton’s Cradle, scaled up, which apparently would have been prohibitively expensive to acquire. Instead they were homemade: spherical steel casings, each with a thick steel disk at the equator and both hemispheres filled with concrete.

As I said, I am not a physicist, so what follows might be off-base. But my impression of the impact event in a normal Newton’s Cradle goes like this:

  • When one ball strikes another, the first ball’s momentum is transferred as a force acting on a single point (ideally, that is) on the surface of the second ball.
  • That force of impact radiates in all directions through the second ball. The energy can’t escape from the ball (except for the bits that become heat, and that clacking noise), so as it crosses through the interior of the ball, the energy that reaches the surface is reflected (or refracted?) back into the interior.
  • Ultimately all that energy converges back at a single point on the surface of the ball, exactly antipodal to the impact point.
  • That energy convergence causes the ball to react and move—and if there’s another ball touching that convergence point, the energy is transferred into that next ball, and the Newton’s Cradle does its thing.

So far, so good. Here’s the problem: as I said, the interior of the Mythbusters balls were mostly concrete, not steel. Therefore most of the energy entering each impacted ball was muddled, diffused, slowed as it moved through that medium. Only the energy passing through the steel equatorial disk—a small fraction of the whole—was transferred efficiently into the next ball. The result was as seen on TV: powerful action, anemic reaction.

I believe that, had the Mythbusters used enormous, solid, hardened steel balls for their giant Newton’s Cradle, they might have come up with the amazing visual they—and we—were all hoping to see.

The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia by Laura Miller

4 November 2011
Categories: From the armchair

My experience with The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis is much like that of Laura Miller, which she describes in The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia: love, then betrayal, followed years later by warm reconciliation.

I was brought up in a secular household. We almost never went to church, except on rare occasions such as Christmas Eve services with Grandma (who, I suspect, liked church more for its social aspects than its religious ones), and the first communions of my cousins, who were raised Catholic. As a kid with limited exposure to it, religion was always something alien and perplexing to me.

Nevertheless, the Chronicles were some of my favourite books in my youth. At age eight I was given a box set of paperbacks (the 1970 Collier/Macmilllan printing) and devoured them repeatedly. Even in my earliest readings I was able to spot many of the more obvious allusions, like the Crucifixion and Resurrection in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and the Creation in The Magician’s Nephew, and the Day of Judgment in The Last Battle. I saw these similarities and shrugged them off; if Lewis had borrowed some themes from the Bible and Christianity, it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the books (although the conclusion of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, with the lamb that turns out to be Aslan, always seemed anti-climactic after the rollicking adventure that preceded it).

I outgrew the books and moved on to other reading, keeping Narnia as a fondly remembered piece of my childhood. Meanwhile, by the time I reached my teenage years, I was an avowed atheist. Partly this was a typical teenager’s know-it-all attitude: “you can’t prove nothin’ to me.” Partly it was a form of quiet rebellion against what I saw as grating and superfluous aspects of Scouting, with its Oath (“…to do my duty to God and my country…”) and Law (“a scout is… reverent”). Who needs God when you’re learning to tie a clove hitch, or finding your way to the next campsite using only a map and a compass? Intellect alone will get the job done.

Then, in my early twenties, when I was still profoundly atheistic and a stubborn know-it-all, I ran across a slim paperback in a used bookstore: Narnia Revealed by Paul A. Karkainen. It’s not a particularly good book—yet another exegesis among many, detailing every little bit of Christian symbolism and metaphor in a dry litany—but its hype-y jacket copy caught my eye: the real meaning behind the Narnia books! I skimmed it and the dawning awareness was a dope-slap to my forebrain: Clive Staples Lewis wasn’t just borrowing themes here and there, the whole thing is Christianity’s tenets, retold! He was trying to convert me! That sneaky bastard!

The feeling I had was, simply, betrayal. I turned my back on Narnia and closed off a little bit of my magical youth.

It was many years later, having found some semblance of spirituality within myself (not through organized religion, mind you) and having become a (hopefully) far more open-minded agnostic, that I returned to the Narnia books and was pleased to find that, despite their trappings, they remain quite excellent children’s stories. That magic, regardless of its putative intent, had not been lost.

Which is why Miller’s book is such a breath of fresh air: it’s a departure from most critical analyses of the Chronicles, and shares a new appreciation for the books from a secular perspective. Instead of mere exegesis, she discusses the Chronicles for their literary qualities, only delving into their Christian aspects where needed to illustrate some of Lewis’s intentions—as a writer, rather than an evangelist. As a result, The Magician’s Book is an intriguing and thoughtful look at Narnia, its place in the pantheon of children’s literature, and most of all: an insightful look at not merely how we learn to read, but how we become readers.


Meanwhile, as a lengthy aside… Like Miller, I too have a strong preference for reading the books in their publication order. This is a deeply dividing argument, and much has been written on both sides (including this excellent run-down). The present executors of Lewis’s estate have come down on the side of strict story chronology, but there are definite artistic reasons for preferring publication order—the moments of initial discovery in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe are ruined if the reader has already seen Narnia in The Magician’s Nephew. And I tend to suspect, as Miller does, that Lewis was “just being kind to his young correspondent” when he wrote, “I think I agree with your [chronological] order for reading the books.”

I remember, as I read The Magician’s Nephew for the first time, being perplexed by its disconnect from the Narnia of the previous books (just as I had been with its predecessor The Horse and His Boy, which except for a pair of talking horses doesn’t seem very “Narnian” for most of its length). When the creation of Narnia is revealed, and it becomes apparent that The Magician’s Nephew is taking place long before the events of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, little eight-year-old me had a moment of smug satisfaction: Aha! those idiot bookmakers numbered the books out of order!

I was savvy enough, even at that young age, to look at the publication dates, to see that the books were indeed numbered in order of their publication. I begrudgingly acceded to the numbering—although I might have placed them in their box in chronological order for a while.

Yet one of the reasons the Chronicles are important to me, and my development as a reader, is that they were the very first to expose me to a simple but effective narrative device: the flashback. Being able to place that entire story outside of its “normal” order was an important step in my increasing understanding of How Stories Work. Sadly, the reprints have stolen that learning moment from subsequent generations of readers, and those readers will have to find it elsewhere.

Another thing that bugs me, beyond the more important ways in which the reordering ruins certain artistic aspects of the books, is how the reordering is handled in the preface to the reprints:

“Although The Magician’s Nephew was written several years after C. S. Lewis first began The Chronicles of Narnia, he wanted it to be read as the first book in the series. Harper Collins is happy to present these books in the order which Professor Lewis preferred.”

This flat statement of fact, without qualification or context, carries the same air of smug, we-know-better, self-satisfaction that I had at age eight—and, in my opinion, is just as juvenile.

Da city dat works

7 October 2011
Categories: Chicago

There’s a famous quote by longtime Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley, spoken to the press during the mayhem in the midst of the 1968 Democratic Convention:

“Gentlemen, get the thing straight once and for all: the policeman isn’t there to create disorder—the policeman is there to preserve disorder.”

It’s a popular quote among many factions. Those who view the chaos in the summer of ’68 as a “police riot” will cite the quote as an example of a brutal fascist’s detachment from reality. Fans of the late mayor, or those taking a broader view of Chicago history, are amused by it: “oh, that Boss and his malapropisms,” they’ll say.

But this morning my wife had an epiphany, when a different interpretation suddenly occurred to her: maybe Hizzoner didn’t misspeak—maybe we misheard him.

We’ve seen the “Superfans” on Saturday Night Live, with their famous catchphrase: “Da Bears.” And I often hear cops on the police band radio saying they’re headed to gas up the patrol car at “Nort an’ Troop”—i.e., the city maintenance facility at North Avenue and Throop Street. That hard plosive (‘d’ or ‘t’) in the place of a softer fricative (‘th’) is a large part of the Chicago patois.

So maybe what Mr. Daley said was:

The policeman is there to preserve dis order.

“Dis” as in, “this.” As in: my order, my office, my administration, my regime.

It still falls into the realm of cocky, self-confident bluster, but that was King Richard for you.

The beginning of the end for NASA?

15 September 2011
Categories: Space exploration

This week NASA announced its Next Big Thing: the “Space Launch System,” a heavy-lift vehicle that will provide the basis for a new generation of crewed deep-space missions, and renew U.S. launch capability in the post-Shuttle era.

Cool. I’m excited. In the space program, it’s okay to equate New with Good. Anything with the potential to expand our knowledge of and presence in the solar system (and maybe even reduce our dependence on our home planet) is worthwhile. And then there’s the ooh-aah factor of the numbers: Three to five times the payload capacity of Space Shuttle! More powerful than the venerable Saturn V! Our biggest rocket ever!

But I’m extremely skeptical about this announcement, and about NASA’s plans for the future—so much so that I have the eerie sense that with this new program NASA has signed its own death warrant.

NASA spent five years fiddling around with the Constellation program before it was cancelled, at untold cost for that abortive development. SLS will require another five years, minimum, before the first test launch will fly—and its first crewed mission isn’t expected to occur until 2025.

Why so long? The answer, of course, is money. We live in an era where the U.S. defense budget is over half a trillion dollars annually, while the education budget is less than one-seventh of that. Congress has flatlined the NASA budget for the foreseeable future. Given those realities, one has to wonder whether NASA couldn’t find a more cost-effective way to spark the public interest, rather than the piecemeal construction of a massive new launch system for the next two decades or more.

Meanwhile, from a hardware standpoint, the SLS plan is far from perfect. NASA has chosen the Rocketdyne RS-25D engine for the main stage, an engine better known as the SSME (Space Shuttle Main Engine). The RS-25 is widely reputed to be the most complicated engine ever built. NASA chose this over the newer RS-68—an engine that is the result of lessons learned from real-world experience with SSME, an engine that has 80% fewer parts, costs less to build, uses the same propellants, and has a reasonable thrust-to-weight ratio—because of the necessity of modifying RS-68 to make it “human-rated.”

The idea is this: NASA has a stockpile of tested RS-25D engines of known quality and reliability—most (if not all) have already been used for Shuttle flights. The cost to take these engines out of mothballs and bolt them to a new airframe is (relatively) minuscule. This defers the cost of main engine development and production until later in the project, which (in the short term) would seem to NASA to be fiscally prudent. Then, the RS-25 would be modified and simplified for expendable use, and production would resume. As the production line comes up to speed, and SLS launches come more frequently, the unit cost of new engines would decrease.

Seems to me I’ve heard this argument before—with Space Shuttle. The high cost of early launches was expected, as the spaceplane reached operational status and made flights with clockwork regularity, to drop precipitously to a downright economical level. Yet Shuttle’s “cheap access to space” never came to be. Hypothetical economies of scale don’t seem to come to fruition very often in the spaceflight game.

I suspect that simplifying the RS-25 to make an expendable version, the RS-25E, requires no less of a development and testing cycle than would be entailed in modifying the existing RS-68 for crewed launches. At the same time, RS-68 already has an existing production line and expectation of continuing use, since it is the main engine of the Delta IV rocket. So why start up a completely separate production line, and employ all those rocket engine builders, for a system that, as currently planned, will need at most five engines per year?

The biggest problem comes down to this: the old adage “time is money.” The longer it takes to get SLS flying, the longer the gap between flights, the more expensive the total program becomes. How many people will be employed, day after day, to make this system happen? What will the ongoing cost be, in salaries and benefits, when it only flies once per year? More to the point: Is this a space program, or a jobs program?

We have the hardware. Assuming the short-term frugality (and long-term myopia) of using RS-25 engines, and with the flight-proven hardware of the Shuttle’s ET as tankage, why must it take six years to get one off the ground? Wernher von Braun and his gang could have whipped together a flight-ready model in much less time—two years perhaps, and four years tops. Just look at what they were able to do with the Saturn I/IB.

If this announcement had come in 1972, in lieu of the Space Shuttle, I’d be excited. Back then NASA might have had the budget and the public impetus—and the gumption—to make it happen, and something exciting probably would have come from it. We might even have walked on Mars by now. But to make this announcement now, with NASA an agency both so bureaucratic and risk-averse as to be vapour-locked, with Congress only allotting it a shoestring budget, and with no clear notion of where SLS might go (and who will pay for it to get there), it seems like too little, too late.

Louis Sullivan: Prophet of Modern Architecture by Hugh Morrison

17 August 2011
Categories: From the armchair

coverLouis Sullivan has been my favourite architect for a long time. So long in fact that I have no clear recollection how I got so into him. Surely it was long before I attended a concert at the incredible Auditorium Building, long before I name-dropped him on Jeopardy!. Sometime in college or shortly thereafter I perused his written works, but never got very far into Kindergarten Chats or Autobiography of an Idea. Around that time I visited Buffalo, New York, and made a point of driving downtown to check out the Guaranty Building. But what in my past had given me the knowledge to do so… that’s uncertain.

Thus my recollection is, like so many Adler & Sullivan creations, lost to the sands of time. I wouldn’t be surprised if I first noticed Sullivan’s work in the astounding decorative façade of his Carson, Pirie & Scott Building during a shopping trip to State Street. And I remember later finding a copy of his rare folio A System of Architectural Ornament According With a Philosophy of Man’s Powers at the university library, which delighted me with its sketches and befuddled me with its prose.

At any rate, as I picked up this reprint of Hugh Morrison’s vital 1935 overview and critique of the life, designs, and philosophy of Louis H. Sullivan, in my mind was the notion: “I love Sullivan’s stuff. His details and ornament are so amazing and so different from anything anyone else was building, then or now.”

Little did I realize that his ornament was not his greatest contribution to architecture.

It’s hard to imagine now, but at the advent of the skyscraper the leading lights of American architecture were all wringing their hands at the problem that modern cities had thrust upon them: Real estate was expensive; city density was rising; the only remaining direction in which to build was up, up, up. Masonry buildings topped out at around twelve stories before they needed iron bracing to hold them up, but soon steel-frame construction came on the scene, and the skyscraper was born—in Chicago, as the Home Insurance Building.

Architects were at a loss: What to do with this new monster? It didn’t fit into any of their preconceived notions of building massing and proportion. To this end, early skyscrapers attempted to conceal their height by breaking the mass into a stack of shorter buildings. The Home Insurance Building is a good example: a two-story ground floor mass, topped by another two-story mass, then one of three stories, then two, then one—each section strongly delineated by its own cornice. (Another two stories were later added at the top, in much the same manner.) Meanwhile, its revolutionary structure is belied by the thick masonry of its exterior walls.

The leading journals were filled with articles that promoted this, shall we say, façade façade.

Louis Henry Sullivan, on the other hand, wrote lengthy arguments against that conceit. His many journal articles elucidate with deep profundity his entire philosophy of architecture; but really much of his florid prose could be distilled down, if a touch cheekily, to a single statement:

Tall buildings are tall. Deal with it.

That’s it in a nutshell. Never mind Sullivan’s amazing organic decoration, much of which was detailed by chief draughtsman George Elmslie anyway. So what if Frank Lloyd Wright owed a great deal of his innovative style to having worked under Sullivan (and later was a complete dick when given the opportunity to add to the historical record on his former mentor). Louis Sullivan’s great genius was in thumbing his nose at stultified convention.

His designs were the first to treat a tall building as a columnar form, with base, shaft, and capital—something now considered to be one of the core tenets of “Chicago School” architecture. The results were tall, soaring masses, and even with their elaborate festoons they exhibited a certain streamlined airiness that was decades ahead of its time.

That said, and this is something that this biography of Sullivan has been instrumental in revealing with its critical eye toward his designs, not everything Sullivan designed was a masterpiece. That’s not just including the ordinary, utilitarian edifices, the warehouses and factory buildings. It could also include some of what we now revere as his “lost treasures.”

For example, the destruction of the Wirt Dexter Building in 2006 remains a sad loss to Chicago’s architectural legacy. Yet if we assess the building strictly on its merits, what was lost?—a modest, relatively nondescript six-story commercial building. Although the Dexter’s Chicago Landmarks citation claimed its “unornamented design is a precursor to the firm’s work on the Auditorium Building,” both designs were derivative of their contemporary, H. H. Richardson. Its odd, perforated cast-iron beams on the rear elevation “anticipate building design of nearly seven decades later”—but were not influential on other structures either in its own era or after; they were isolated experiments that anticipated later design, but did not cause it. I believe the Dexter received its landmark designation solely due to the fame of its architects and the dearth of their surviving works in Chicago (a list that is now frightfully short).

Moreover, Sullivan’s extreme adherence to his own design principles may prove detrimental to his buildings’ long-term survival. For example his late works, the “jewel box” banks, are to some degree misguided treasures. Their external (and internal) exquisiteness aside, the interiors of these buildings have a certain over-planned rigidity to them. The jewel boxes are so specialized in their tasks, so precisely geared toward the machinery of their use, that I am forced to wonder: What happens when, say, a building-and-loan office is no longer needed? Or when the mechanics of banking change so dramatically (as they have, in many ways, over the past eight decades) that Sullivan’s highly functional interiors become obsolete? Can his buildings adapt to changing use? Or do they become, simply, pretty boxes with nothing to fit in them?

And his refusal to compromise with what Daniel Burnham deemed a “democratic ideal”—what Sullivan saw, justifiably perhaps, as pandering to the lowest common denominator—was at times so steadfast that his late-career demise might well have been inevitable.

When Dankmar Adler broke their partnership in 1895, only to come crawling back six months later, Sullivan’s refusal to renew their tie was an all-too-human response; he surely felt betrayed by Adler, who had only a few years left to live. Yet Adler’s personal style of dealing with clients was part of the old firm’s strength, and surely could have helped Sullivan to get back on his feet. Instead, new projects continued their post-Panic-of-1893 stagnation.

The Transportation Building for the 1893 World’s Fair—that grand, polychromatic departure from the forced classicism of the “White City”—was among the most eye-catching of any Fair buildings, and possibly (at least, according to Morrison) the most popular among visitors. Yet its outrageously over-the-top style, methinks a reactionary response to the Fair’s other architects, may well have been detrimental to modern architecture in the long run, for its sheer exuberance might have led fairgoers to think “that’s very lovely to look at, but I can’t imagine constructing something like that on Main Street in my town.” A simpler, cleaner, less adorned style, something Sullivan achieved in a few of his contracts within a few years of the Fair, might have been more approachable as a real-world possibility. Instead, the great takeaway of the Fair was a massive boom in old-fashioned, throwback—safe—styles: Roman and Greek columns and forms, temples of commerce and education and government, solid masses of masonry that sharply contradicted the lightweight steel structure they wrapped.

As Sullivan wrote near his death, the Fair set modern architecture back by fifty years—a declaration that loses some of its prophetic tone when we remember that it was written thirty years after the Fair. Still, when one considers such buildings as the Jewelers Building (1925–27 by Giaver & Dinkelberg) his statement rings true. Here’s a building, designed more than three decades after Adler & Sullivan’s game-changing Wainwright and Guaranty Buildings, still relying on Sullivan’s base/shaft/capital system—yet also stuck with classical applied decoration to the extent of five great gazebos, like Greek or Roman temples, plunked on its roofs.

The building owes a lot of its overall massing to Sullivan—but not nearly enough. And, perhaps, Sullivan himself is in some small way partly to blame for this. He was a genius who tried, sometimes desperately, but failed to bring his genius to the people.

I guess what I’m really trying to say is that this book really led me to reassess my own biases, not only with regard to Sullivan but to architecture and historic preservation in general. I used to think that 99 times out of 100, demolition is bad, that buildings should be renovated and restored and reused, if at all possible. Now I’m not so stuck in that hard-core preservation mode.

Not every old building is worth saving, regardless of who designed it. And some great old buildings remain great, but lack vitality and purpose. In the end, if a building cannot be adapted to benefit the living, if it serves no other purpose than as a placeholder of architectural history, then inevitably it will probably succumb to economic realities. The Chicago Stock Exchange Building, for example, was destroyed by people who saw it as I have described his jewel box banks, inflexible to adaptation and therefore uneconomic; they were, in retrospect, quite wrong (it was readily adaptable, and was even profitable up to the day its tenants were evicted), and that building remains a tremendous loss to Chicago. But I have little doubt that if it were still standing today, forty years later, it would still be under the constant threat of demolition—for the right price.

Louis H. Sullivan was a great architect, of that there is no doubt. But he also had a tremendous inability to—well, either to go with the flow or to compromise his principles, depending on how charitably one views his steadfastness. I suppose the real tragedy is that we didn’t get enough out of him when he was alive, and we spent far too long under-appreciating what he wrought—to the extent that today we’re left with a mere handful of great works by the master, and a mixed bag of them at that.