Tag: engineer

Engineering Zeal


Voted the second Greatest Briton of all time (after Winston Churchill), Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-1859) was one of the 19th century’s engineering giants. He was the son of French civil engineer Marc Isambard Brunel and an English mother. His father taught him drawing and he learned Euclidean geometry by eight. At 14 years old, his father sent him to school in France for a technical education that was unavailable in Britain. His school report showed that he was a precociously talented child. At 16, he returned to England as an engineer on the first tunnel under the Thames River. In 1828, the tunnel flooded and injured Isambard. While recuperating, he made drawings for a suspension bridge over the Avon Gorge in Bristol, which became the Clifton Suspension Bridge. With the “short man syndrome” like Napoleon, at five feet tall he wore his trademark eight-inch stovepipe hat to look more imposing. A workaholic, regularly putting in 20-hour days, he smoked more than 40 cigars a day. He epitomized Engineering Zeal.

In addition to the tunnel and various bridges, Brunel designed the world’s largest ships upon launching. The Great Western (1837) was the first steamship with regular transatlantic service. The Great Britain (1843) was the first large ship driven by a screw propeller. The Great Eastern (1859) with sails, paddle wheels, and a screw propeller, was the largest ship for 40 years and laid the first successful transatlantic cable. As transportation devices, his steamships are no longer in service, but his greatest success is still in use today.

Before the Thames Tunnel was complete, Brunel became chief engineer of the Great Western Railway, connecting London to Bristol. The Bristol merchants wanted their city to prosper with the American trade. With a Liverpool to London rail line under construction in the 1830s, Bristol’s status was threatened. With the co-operation of London interests, the company was founded at Bristol in 1833 and was incorporated by Act of Parliament in 1835. Brunel chose a very wide gauge of seven feet which would give smoother running at high speeds. In addition, he selected a route west of Reading that had no significant towns but offered potential connections to Oxford and Gloucester. The tracks make a broad sweep to the north, as shown below:

“The Martian” Is Thrilling, Surprisingly Funny, and Scientifically Accurate


The_Martian_film_posterThe Martian features Matt Damon as NASA astronaut Mark Watney, who with a six-member crew including commanding officer Jessica Chastain, is on a month-long science mission on the beautifully desolate surface of Mars. Of course, one month is only the planned duration of their stay on the surface; the deep space transit to and from Mars takes several hundred days each way, which becomes important later in the film.

We enter the story partway into the surface mission. The crew is collecting Martian soil samples when NASA sends them an urgent message about an impending storm. The storm is apparently so severe that the rocket which is supposed to lift the crew back into space at the end of their mission won’t survive the harsh winds on the ground. So the crew is forced to abort their surface mission and perform a hasty emergency launch. In the rush and confusion, Watney is left behind, presumed dead. All of this introductory material is completed in a very breezy few minutes, plunging us right into the survival story.

Damon is charming, self-deprecating, full of creativity, and despite the all the rational reasons to believe himself doomed, he remains confident in his training and problem-solving abilities. He shows well-earned pride of accomplishment and just the kind of cockiness you’d expect from a flyboy as he conquers the litany of challenges thrown at him by the deserted red planet, including lack of breathing air, food shortages, transportation, weather, and communication. However, the film seems to gloss over his coming-to-grips with his extremely perilous situation. Instead, it jumps ahead several weeks, thereby depriving us of the opportunity to watch Damon experience the full range of emotions you’d expect from a marooned spaceman, including grief, denial, anger, resentment, loneliness, despair, and hopelessness — especially in light of the events that stranded him there. We see a lot of footage of Damon entertaining himself by making smart remarks into a camera, and he is often hilarious. But there is little sense that he feels alone or lonely at all (in contrast with, say, Sam Rockwell’s performance in Moon), which reduces the euphoria we should feel when he finally re-establishes communication with NASA. Perhaps it is this unworldly optimism that helped keep him alive.