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Mark Matthews

Clues to the Universe - and Disaster

In a Mechanical Engineering article last October, Duke University’s Adrian Bejan wrote: “Science with engineering is a much better story than science without engineering.” No greater examples can be found than the multibillion-dollar colliders, telescopes, and tori – together known as Big Science – that Tom Grose describes in our cover story, “Engines of Exploration.” While plumbing the secrets of the universe, these colossal feats of imagination and technology could eventually yield game changers here on Earth. The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), for instance, might one day lead to safe and limitless energy through fusion.

It’s an understatement to say that engineers design the megaplatforms for the experiments. In fact, these interdisciplinary projects dissolve the line between science and engineering. At ITER, Grose was told, “physics is driving the engineering, and engineering drives the physics.”

How Big Science will fare in the era of austerity budgets in the United States and Europe could be a cause for worry. Discovery for its own sake lacks the urgency that drove the Manhattan Project and the Apollo space program. Projects long in the works, like ITER and the James Webb Space Telescope, are getting the money to finish, but ambitious new ventures will most likely have to wait or proceed slowly. Witness the scaling back of Mars exploration and uncertainty over the Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory.

Yotaro Hatamura matches Big Science engineers in boldness, but his is of a different sort. Apparently without fear or favor, this mechanical engineer is Japan’s go-to expert at unraveling calamities, be they crashing elevators, train derailments, or collapsing tunnels. His probe into last year’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant meltdown follows his usual practice, Lucy Craft reports in “Dissecting Disaster”: looking for the telling clues that, once understood, can prevent a recurrence. Assigning blame isn’t his point, but Hatamura’s initial 507-page report nevertheless amounts to a damning indictment of Tokyo Electric Power and its regulators.

Elsewhere in Prism, check out Peggy Loftus’s story on how community colleges are stepping up engineering research and Mary Lord’s foray into riveting engineering courses built around historic structures.

We hope you enjoy this issue, and we welcome your comments.

Mark Matthews




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