Monday, January 10, 2011
Signal and Noise
When I left for college three and a half years ago, I didn't really know what I was getting into. The air was hot and arid when I got on the plane in Phoenix, and the air was hot and muggy when I got off the plane in Houston. That much I expected, though it did take a while to get used to the relentless humid winds that sweep north from the Gulf of Mexico through College Station. I left home with grand but vague notions of what I wanted to accomplish in the next four years and beyond.
I would be studying engineering, aerospace to be exact, and the experts assured me that the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas was a fine place to do so. After that was when the really exciting part would happen. With the broad and deep knowledge of engineering I was sure I'd develop over the next four years, maybe reinforced by a few years in grad school, I planned to take on the great aerospace challenges of our time. Efficient airplanes, supersonic transports, reusable launch vehicles, the settlement of the planets and moons and stars, all this was what I was really here sweating and studying on the western edge of the Bible Belt for. How exactly a BS in Aerospace Engineering fit into those plans was a mystery to me, but I knew it was the path of least resistance to working on these epic projects. Like a raindrop seeking the ocean I set out for Aggieland.
One of the best ways to establish myself as an up-and-coming mover and shaker in college was to do research, early and often, I was told. So I set out, long before I could provide any justification for the case that I could be a competent researcher, to "do research," whatever that was. Happily, Dr. B was only too happy to give me a tour of his lab a few weeks into my freshman year.
All modern aerospace engineering programs worth their salt have a wind tunnel or two, and the better ones have big and fast tunnels. Texas A&M has two wind tunnels on the engineering side of campus and three off-campus next to the airport. Dr. B's reserach focused on one of the off-campus wind tunnels, the Mach 6 quiet tunnel that had recently been shipped in from NASA's Langley Research Center in Virginia. I found the name amusing at first. You wouldn't expect anything about a machine shooting compressed air at six times the speed of sound through a rocket nozzle to be quiet, after all. It's a fitting name, though, since even though the tunnel screams when it's running, the interior is so precisely designed, shaped, machined, and polished, the airflow through the test section is impeccably smooth, free of the noise of eddies and vorticies that can dominate flow fields in less precise tunnels.
Quiet is not the opposite of loud; it's the opposite of noisy. It's very easy to be loud and noisy. Just watch C-SPAN or any of the 24 hour news networks for an hour or so if you need convincing. Being loud and quiet is difficult, and I think being quiet, free of noise and accurate, is more important anyway. I'd like to be loud, to broadcast my thoughts as broadly as I can to reach as many people as I can, someday, but I want to make sure that what I broadcast is the best it can be first. So for now, I seek quiet, not loudness.
One of the pieces of wisdom I picked up from a professor freshman year was that creativity doesn't happen in a vacuum. People need community to survive, or better yet thrive, and a community of ideas where the most robust are weeded out from a multitude of contenders is infinitely stronger than an isolated quiver of unexposed thoughts. Also, discussing thoughts and ideas as openly as possible is just more fun than keeping them all to yourself. Evangelism is a word that's long been a associated with the promulgation of religion, particularly Christianity. That's not really what I mean. The purpose of this blog is to seek the best ideas history and creativity have to offer and send them out into the ether. Who knows, something might stick or achieve something like profoundness, and even if nothing I write here ever does, I like writing and need to organize my hobbies better.
I haven't pinned down exactly what this blog's about, and I expect that it will evolve over time anyway. For now, I'll say this. I am a very skeptical person, and have a stronger religious drive than most. These parts of my personality can be awkward bedfellows at times. I'll consider my career a success if I can look back and say I've genuinely helped establish an enduring human presence in space. I think science, and humanity's harnessing of it through technology, is a sublimely beautiful enterprise. My life and worldview have been profoundly affected by a number of experiences I hope to describe in greater detail in future posts. In the past I considered myself a Christian, and in the present I don't follow much of a formal creed. Depending on your personal definitions, you might call me an atheist, an agnostic, an agnostic theist, or a pantheist, with varying degrees of accuracy. As corny as this might sound, there are such things as truth, beauty, and love in the universe, and I aim to seek these as well as I can. I see this blog as one line of work in this search. If you'd like to help, welcome aboard.