How Advertisers Misrepresent Engineering

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Generally, everything we buy has been engineered or designed by someone (yes, even your food). It then falls to a select group of people to try to sell these products to the public.

Today, I was watching Hawaii Five-O on ABC’s Website (an excellent show, BTW) and of course there are advertisements. Normally I’ll just mute the sound and read some news while it plays, but this time I actually listened. It was an ad by Cadillac for their CTS-V sports car. You can watch it for yourself here. It features all the standard fare of a car commercial. Sweeping 360 degree motion shots. Fancy computer rendered eye candy. Professional driver on a closed course. Gross misrepresentations. This particular commercial tries to explain how the whole car has been engineered for extreme performance and high speeds (It actually held, at the time it was introduced, the fastest Nuremberg lap for a production sedan) using the example of the windshield wipers. It depicts a CTS-V, driving along a water drenched road, making quick work of the rain drops smashing into it. Listen to the powerful, assuring voice of the person narrating however, and you realize the point of the commercial is not sane at all. According to him (or really, the person who wrote the ridiculous script) the windshield wipers were designed to resist the force of a raindrop when the car is going 190MPH. One hundred and ninety miles per hour. In a road sedan. In the RAIN. A more appropriate commercial would have been on why the car doesn’t hydroplane at those speeds. Its true, a rain drop is an extremely powerful force when flung at 190MPH. It is this principle that steel cutting water-jets are based on. However, anyone that would suggest a car be driven at 190MPH in conditions where the windshield wipers are needed is out of their minds. A car can hydroplane at speeds as low as 45MPH on 1/10″ of water. You would quite literally be flying at 190MPH. Which might be a good opportunity to point out how much of a force a tree, or guard rail or ditch can exert when it hits your puny piece of steel at 190MPH. This is something engineers HAVE actually thought about. They couldn’t care less if your windshield wiper gets bent while being an idiot. And if they do, then that right there is a good indicator of why Cadillacs are so expensive, why GM needed to be bailed out by the US government, and the definitive case of a terrible use-scenario.


Science Non-Fiction

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I’m a huge fan of action movies, even with their occasional disregard for the laws of physics. I am also a huge fan of science fiction. However, often times script writers forget the first part of that genre label: science. CGI is all well and good, but it is not a good replacement for a good, imaginative, scientific base. And when the writing actually gets in the way of the plausibility, the movie becomes ruined. A perfect example of this is the recent action movie, G.I. Joe. I’m not slighting the high-tech suits, or the little metal-eating nanobots… they were brilliant. What bothered me was the ending, where the villain decided to destroy his sub-polar-ice-cap fortress. He didn’t do this by simply detonating the whole structure, but instead by blowing up the ice above and having it FALL DOWN and CRUSH his vast base on the ocean floor. I’m sure the passengers of the Titantic would have appreciated this variant of artic ice.

You see, water is one of the few materials which actually becomes less dense as it  freezes, which means that 1 cubic foot of ice weighs less than one cubic foot of water. When an object whose density is higher than water is placed in water, it will sink, displacing as much water as its volume. However if an object has a density less than water, it will sink into the water until the displaced water weighs as much as the object. Since ice is only marginally less dense than water ( .91 vs. 1 gram per cubic centimeter) a block of ice placed in water will have roughly 90% of its volume beneath the surface, but never 100%. This is what makes an iceberg so dangerous: the 90% of the ice below the surface can be in any shape and very far away from the visible 10%.

Science fiction can inspire children to pay more attention to science and engineering disciplines, but those who write it had better already have at least a general grasp of the laws of physics. The legendary science fiction writer, Jules Verne, wrote truly great, and in his day imaginative, works. They are made even more fascinating by how many of his fantastical ideas finally did come true. In the book, Paris in the 20th Century he predicted a world of skyscrapers, calculators, automobiles, and world-wide communications. Pretty bizarre ideas for the year 1863! Good science fiction then, is that which one day becomes science non-fiction.

Unfortunately, no matter what nano-bots are invented, or how many mach the fastest fighter jet can fly at, artic ice will never sink on its own.

Welcome to Engineered!

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An engineer dies and reports to the pearly gates. St. Peter checks his dossier and says, “Ah, you’re an engineer — you’re in the wrong place.”

So, the engineer reports to the gates of hell and is let in. Pretty soon, the engineer gets dissatisfied with the level of comfort in hell, and starts designing and building improvements. After awhile, they’ve got air conditioning and flush toilets and escalators, and the engineer is a pretty popular guy.

One day, God calls Satan up on the telephone and says with a sneer, “So, how’s it going down there in hell?”

Satan replies, “Hey, things are going great. We’ve got air conditioning and flush toilets and escalators, and there’s no telling what this engineer is going to come up with next.”

God replies, “What??? You’ve got an engineer? That’s a mistake — he should never have gotten down there; send him up here.”

Satan says, “No way. I like having an engineer on the staff, and I’m keeping him.”

God says, “Send him back up here or I’ll sue.”

Satan laughs uproariously and answers, “Yeah, right. And just where are YOU going to get a lawyer?”