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Mark Matthews

Damn the Torpedoes

When Adm. David Farragut ordered his Union fleet to ignore “torpedoes” and proceed full speed ahead during the Civil War Battle of Mobile Bay, he actually was referring to naval mines. Cheap, virtually maintenance free, and lethally effective even now, mines represent one of what historian Norman Friedman calls “game changers” of naval warfare. The demand by today’s Navy for comparable technological breakthroughs is bringing a sea change to marine engineering and naval architecture. From teaching to research, as Art Pine’s cover story describes, these fields are becoming more interdisciplinary. The design and construction of the highly complex system that is the 21st-century warship require marine engineers who know about nanotechnology, materials, and electrical engineering, and chemists and electrical engineers who know shipbuilding basics. And in the lab,“most of the really hard and interesting problems are at the boundaries,” says Steven Ceccio, head of the University of Michigan-led Naval Engineering Education Center. “All the easy problems got solved a long time ago.”

A drive for technological game changers of all kinds is one reason government agencies are increasingly eager to sponsor student competitions. DARPA’s Grand Challenge, won by Carnegie Mellon University in 2007, sought a robotic car that could autonomously navigate difficult terrain. As Tom Grose reports in our feature “Designed to Win,” innovations derived from that contest later found their way into Google’s autonomous car. Students are responding with a “damn the torpedoes” verve that would do Admiral Farragut proud, whether pedaling furiously to lift a human-propelled helicopter off the ground or fundraising to secure materials for a Solar Decathlon entry. In the process, they’re learning the secrets of smooth-running teams and bridging the gap between the math and science of early engineering courses and design. Though research has yet to document the educational value of competitions, professional societies and some engineering schools don’t need persuading. They’re sponsoring their own contests.

We hope you enjoy these and other features in this month’s Prism. As always, we welcome your comments.

Mark Matthews




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