Sunday, January 23, 2011

Tempo and Takt

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How do I put this without sounding like this guy?

Travelling, roommate drama, disconnected internet accounts, the start of a new (final!) semester tend to get in the way of things like writing blog posts on a regular basis. I'm not really sure what kind of regular basis I want to be posting on, anyway, but I'd prefer to keep week-long hiatuses to a minimum. My hope is that eventually a natural tempo will emerge, and I'll stick to that as well as I can. Historically my college semesters have been challenging and busy, and though I'm taking fewer hours than ever before this semester, some of those hours are made of senior design project and research. Those particular line items have a way of expanding to fill whatever free time remains. The good news is that by May I'll have helped design, build, and fly an airplane of brand new design and I may have presented a paper at a major conference on materials science and engineering. The downside is that this is not conducive to a peaceful personal life or a steady blog schedule. Oh well.

Since I don't want this blog to be only a storehouse for my moodier and more esoteric rantings (SPOILER WARNING: There will probably be lots of those), I'll take this opportunity to expound on what these last classes of my undergrad career entail.

1) AERO 452, Viscous Flows and Heat Transfer:
Like motor oil or maple syrup, air is sticky. It's a lot less sticky than either of those, but the tendency of air to tug on solid surfaces as it flows past, that is, it's viscosity, is enough to have profound implications on the dynamics of vehicles that move through it. Since the stresses that arise from viscous action are tiny compared to the stresses that emerge from pressure, there's a great temptation to ignore the effect of viscosity completely. This makes the equations of fluid motion a lot easier (and actually solvable in some relevant cases), but these inviscid equations are ultimately approximations of the true equations that include viscosity (and are never solvable for anything interesting). In this class, I'll be learning how to use the Navier-Stokes equations to get the full picture of how fluid flow really works, at least in an introductory sense. Since I don't plan to become a specialist in computational fluid dynamics, I doubt I'll learn a lot more about this subject. This class will be something of a capstone for my understanding of fluid dynamics.

2) AERO 419, Chemical Rocket Propulsion:
Above 100 kilometers, this is it. With no air to breathe, to get anywhere a spacecraft either has to harness the dilute power available in vacuum (through solar sails, electrodynamic tethers, and such), or use a rocket. A thorough background of the principles of rocket propulsion, how to analyze, test, and design them, and an overview of the capabilities of this technology are the bread and butter of this class. It astounds me to think that a few centuries ago Newton understood the dynamics of planetary motion as well as we do, but probably would've dismissed the idea of human-built machines vagabonding around their orbits as magic. This is how the magic happens.

3) MATH 401, Advanced Engineering Math:
To be clear, I have no quarrel with pure mathematics as a pursuit unto itself. Certainly much of pure math, once fully understood and placed in the proper context, is beautiful in a way similar to the baroque masterpieces of centuries past. By nature and by training, though, I'm an engineer, not a mathematician. Math is an incredibly powerful cognitive tool for understanding and describing the universe we live in. This descriptive math is different in character from the artistic math of pure mathematicians. Its problems typically don't have neat, closed-form solutions, and approximations of some sort must be made to understand what's going on with the equations. The Navier-Stokes equations of AERO 452 are a classic example of vitally important equations that have no analytic solutions. This class deals with finding the most elegant approximations available to the problems engineers are likely to encounter, and I submit this process for grasping the nature of reality is just as beautiful as the neat formal proofs of Euclid. Also, it helps us build airplanes, which are cool.

4) AERO 402, Aerospace Vehicle Design II:

This is the second act of my senior capstone project at A&M. Last semester my team and I designed a response to a request for proposals (RFP) for a high-performance military trainer to replace the T-38. The design is purely theoretical, of course, and this semester we'll redesign it at a smaller scale, test the shape in a wind tunnel, and build a remote controlled flying model to validate the design. Pure excitement, but also a lot of work.

5) LBAR 485, French Connections:
America and France are fascinating places. Both forged from revolution, they share a passion for democracy, but have radically different ideas of what role the state should play in the daily life of the citizens who compose those democracies. As an engineering major, I'm also sometimes amazed that anything gets done in France with a 35 hour work week. This seminar is my indulgence away from the engineering grind, and as something of a francophile I'm looking forward to learning more about what the homeland I love and its older, fascinating counterpart to the east have in common and how they differ. Our first reading will be Sixty Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong.

This is actually less work than I've ever attempted to take on in a semester before. As the academic pressure spools up I'll have to establish a takt to deliver the deliverables these classes demand on time, hopefully with enough to spare for blogging and other anti-insanity activities. I've done it before, with more hours, and so here's to the new takt. If you're a student, best of luck to you and yours as well.

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