Wednesday, March 3, 2010

I promised a post on Tsunamis and "Modern Math." Here it is.

My introduction to tsunamis was through George Kontopidis and Win Hill, at a now defunct Sea Data Corporation (It was bought out as far as I know). It was a great place to work intellectually, though. Always something new going on. A real think tank. A major part of the company was creating wave and tide recorders, electrochemical instrumentation, and many other kinds of instruments. The wave and tide recorders helped save many lives. Being a part of saving so many lives gives you a good feeling.

While I was a graduate student, I had the opportunity to work as a tech writer for Sea Data, and, later, after getting my doctorate, as an electrochemical engineer. It was in the, "tech writer," stage that I learned so much about tsunamis. It was then that I got to use my, Modern Math," skills. In a way, you could say, "Modern Math helped save thousands of lives!"

For now, back to fourth grade, Mrs. Degnan, Montgomery Elementary School in the Valley Central School District, and modern math. First, Mrs. Degnan: What a wonderful teacher. We made rocket ships, we did base 2, base 8, base 10 and base 16. We built things, for example, I built a slide projector using a wooden box and an empty roll from toilet paper, and, oh, yes, the lenses. What a great year. And, we lucked out, we got her another year, too. Thank you, Mrs Degnan. Many of us went on in math, science and engineering. We all benefited from your teaching. It was your math that got me through high school and college... (My algebra teacher in high school had failed algebra in college... Fortunately, we learned algebra and Boolean algebra from Mrs. Degnan. So many lives saved.

Win Hill (Read his book and you'll see what I mean) can take the very technical and simplify it. George Kontopidis can do the impossible. Both are math and electrical engineering wizards. But, there is only so much time for the CEO and chief engineer of a company to do things. They were so busy at that time. Countries were ordering hundreds of wave and tide recorders from Sea Data. The technology stayed cutting edge, so technical instrumentation manuals had to be written. That's where I came in. I'd get to look at a new instrument, for about only five minutes, minutes before it was shipped out. Then, I'd be handed the schematic. I'd decipher the schematic because there wasn't another instrument to look at. Four days later, there was the manual, all done. When the work needed to be done, it needed to be done yesterday, as they say. (And, this was in the days that I had to put in a hard drive and take it out in order to word process different projects. It was also in the days when turning on a saw in the other room to make shipping crates to send the instruments out in (which of course, like the manuals, were needed, "now!") meant that the computer would crash. I learned to save after every half-sentence because computers did not back things up automatically the way many of them do now.

Let's see: Back to math class. We could multiply and divide in binary, hex, and so on. I used to be able to do bases 2, 8, and 16, faster than base 10 (which is probably why, "Modern Math," is often picked on: We need those times tables.). I never forgot those skills.

To interpret the data from the wave and tide recorders, base 2 was needed...binary. I was able to easily write and explain the math needed. I could do the math. Customers buying the instruments finally could teach others that needed to use the units how they worked. The manuals contributed to increased sales.

But, the bottom line is not money in this case, but, the lives saved. Thanks, Win, George, and Mrs. Degnan.

You see, grade school studies and high school studies may not always seem, "important," or, "relevant," but using them as a critical thinker, you can solve world problems. You never know, you might even save lives.


That reminds me of a joke...

There are 10 kinds of people in the world. Those that understand binary and those that don't.

Sometimes you'll see that on a T-shirt, but, Matt Baum (personal communication) is the person that shared it with me.

I hope you enjoyed this tsunami story.

Post script:
You might ask how a botanist got to do so much electrochemical engineering. Remember that I am an electrophysiologist who did a botanical study following a mycological study. I will say if I got the same degree in the electrical engineering department my stipend would have been 2 to 4 times higher, and my salaries, too! Cells are found in living organisms. They consist of a salty solution, some membranes and some organelles. I'm sure, you have learned all the parts of prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells. Well, chemicals in the cells often have charges, thus, electrochemistry: a kind of combination of biochemistry and electrical engineering. Did you know plants are so much fun? Sometimes botanists are under-rated. Chromotography---that chemists rely on...invented by a botanist; Brownian movement, on which Einstein based some of his work... discovered by a botanist. I interfaced an old navy oscilloscope to a three-electrode system and later to a computer (before you could buy these instruments already integrated with computers as systems or as instruments with built in computers). I looked at environmental stimuli, like acid rain, or, light, or biochemical stimuli, like fungal toxins, and their effects on elm membrane potential. Thus, electrical engineering, computer and instrument design, botany, forest pathology and mycology all fit into a nice package together, as long as you've got the math. (That's where the science literacy (which needs math literacy) comes in.

(c) 2010 J S Shipman

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