04.24.06

Engineering the Improbable

Posted in Science & Engineering at 7:51 pm by Administrator

I recently Netflixed a copy of the Discovery Channel documentary Extreme Engineering: Transatlantic Tunnel. The basic idea of this show was an exploration of the feasibility of constructing a 3100 mile long tunnel between New York and Scotland as part of some grand “connect the world” plan.

The tunnel would float about 150 feet below the surface of the Atlantic. Sounds difficult you say, but wait! The best part is that the magnetically levitated train would travel at a speed of 5000 miles per hour! To achieve this sort of speed without burning up requires that a perfect vacuum be maintained in the tunnel and some sort of massive airlock system where the trains enter and exit.

To say that such a project would not be cheap would be a gross understatement. The total construction costs were estimated to run about 12 trillion dollars (that’s $12,000,000,000,000)!!! Even better, it would take over a century to be completed. I can assure you that, given those numbers, this project would NEVER pay for itself.

Don’t get me wrong. I have no doubt that this project is technically possible and, if adequately funded, could be carried to completion. My point is that actually attempting it would be absurd for so many different reasons:

  • Given the amount of infrastructure that would need to be maintained, subsurface transatlantic travel would never be financially competitive with the airlines - even without the subsidies.
  • The length of time for completion guarantees no investors would touch the project. It would have to be government funded.
  • Maintaining political support for a publicly funded project that doesn’t show any results for a century would be problematic.
  • Any sort of accident (or deliberate sabotage) would not only reduce the train and its passengers to sawdust; it would also destroy a good portion of the $12,000,000,000 tunnel.
  • Technological advances over the century-long construction time would probably render the project obsolete before it was even operational. For all we know, instantaneous teleportation could be possible a century from now. It is a foregone conclusion that by then we will have practical hypersonic jets and space planes able to reach ANY part of the world in 90 minutes.

The idea is completely impractical, but by biggest complaint about it is it’s lack of vision. A 12 trillion dollar budget and what did these guys come up with? A ******* tunnel!!! Talk about failure of imagination.

I think I’m going to come up with some better ideas for that money. I’ll write them up and publish them here occasionally. This should be fun…

 

04.19.06

Medical Science

Posted in Humor, Science & Engineering at 3:30 pm by Administrator

At about 11:30  last night, I got a headache. This was not an ordinary everyday headache mind you; but a truly head-splitting, feels like a brain tumor, dot-com investor headache.  I eventually cured this headache with my usual headache remedy (3 Tylenols, 3 Advils, 3 Aspirins). I couldn’t help observing, however, that had I gone to the best hospital in the country (Mayo Clinic or Johns Hopkins or something…NOT RCH), they probably would not have been able to tell me why I got a headache. In fact, they could not have determined with any kind of certainty whether or not my headache had been caused by:

  • the melatonin tablet I had taken so I would wake up early
  • the fact that, besides my usual coffee and Altoids regiment, I had eaten practically nothing that day but popcorn and leftover Easter candy
  • latent stress over the pile of homework I have due by the end of the semester
  • the five consecutive episodes of Desperate Housewives I had just watched on a 2.5 inch screen

Sure, they could have looked at the statistics stating that melatonin causes headaches in 10% of the population, stress causes headaches in 75% of the population, and Desperate Housewives causes headaches in 99% of the male population, but they would never have known for sure. They could only have made a somewhat educated guess.

If I had submitted to a series of expensive, invasive, degrading tests, they may have been able to rule out anything seriously wrong with me (such as Schwannomatosis, Neurofibromatosis, or being a sports fan); but they could never have determined, with absolute certainty, what had caused something as simple as a headache. In the end, I would probably have been told to go home and take an aspirin.

Contrast this with the typical experience with a car mechanic. You bring your car in, the mechanic plugs some neat little diagnostic tool into your engine, and in three minutes he tells you EXACTLY what the problem is, and how many thousand it will cost to fix. 

Don’t get me wrong. I have no problem with paying money to fix either my body or my car (or my car’s body), but I would prefer to pay for accurate diagnoses and fixes, not guesses based on my subjective description of the symptoms. Therefore, I submit that until medical treatment is as exact and precise as car repair, we should treat doctors less like gods, and more like unreliable body mechanics, useful mainly to fix clearly defined problems (like multiple stab wounds).