Insights In The Extremes
The most elegant way that this can be illustrated is with a simple little puzzle, as shown below:
Three balls, identical in mass and size are given identical initial velocities down three different tracks. Each ball finishes at the same height it began at, and friction is non-existent. The balls definitely have enough initial velocity to make it over any humps or bumps along their paths.
The question is, which one finishes first?
You may think that we're pulling that old familiar physics trick on you, and say that they all finish at the same time. Energy is conserved right? Well, you'd be wrong. You also might think that the ball traveling on the straight path arrives first, since it has the least complicated path to navigate. Unfortunately, that's also incorrect.
The best way to solve this problem is by taking the qualities that make each track unique -- bumping up, sinking down, and traveling straight -- and amplify them. Like this:
Now can you see a solution? It's much more obvious in this set to anyone who's ever ridden their bike down a hill, the ball that goes into the trough speeds up, then travels faster for a distance, then slows down as it comes back to ground level. The ball that climbs a hill slows down and travels a distance at that slower speed, then speeds up near the end. And the straight fellow just continues at the initial speed. Now, looking at the original, we see that the same thing happens, but just for a tiny bit of time. The dipping ball speeds up, the bumped up ball slows down, and the straight ball goes the same speed. So the finishing order, from top to bottom is 3rd, 1st, 2nd, a thoroughly unexpected result.
So how does this solve my design problem, you ask? It's not that we're presenting a real solution to anything here; Just a new way of looking at problems.
Problems like the impending disasters we listed above. What if we looked at a super-disaster for some insight. Graciously, NASA scientists have provided us with one, and it's enough to make you want to put on a tinfoil hat and suck your thumb. Except that wouldn't make any difference. This super disaster is called a Gamma Ray Burst, and it's believed to be responsible for the Ordovician mass extinction around 440 million years ago.
Scientists aren't sure what cause gamma ray bursts, but they postulate that they are caused by the implosion of super massive stars, most of them well outside our galaxy. Gamma rays are one of the highest energy types of electro-magnetic radiation. So punchy, in fact that metals are transparent to them in the same way that our skin is transparent to X-rays. But the real danger to life on earth comes from gamma rays ability to destroy our ozone layer.
NASA scientists recently completed a study which found that a 10 second gamma ray burst would destroy up to half of the earth's ozone layer, which would then take 5 years to recover. Once gone, the lack of ozone would let a blast of ultra-violet radiation into the upper few meters of the ocean, destroying all phytoplankton, which are the building blocks of most sea food chains. Disrupting the oceanic, and probably terrestrial food chains would means super trouble for us, not only because fish are tasty, but because aquaculture is responsible for much of the protein consumed in the most populous regions of the world, and even a large part of the protein used in the US for livestock feed.
But even with such a huge threat looming, there isn't much we can do directly. Gamma rays are light, so the first sign of the burst that we would see would be the burst itself, traveling at light speed. There's no time for early warning like an asteroid or tsunami. And, since the real damage gets done in the upper atmosphere, by rays that can pass through even a metal shield, there isn't much easy blocking that can be done either.
So, what to do? Maybe you need to re-examine the real issues: How do we get through this tragedy without loosing humanity as a species, and more importantly, with the least strife possible. Maybe you would recommend setting up permanent aid agencies in widely distributed parts of the world, since you wouldn't know where the blast would hit. You could do a little blocking by stepping up production of sunscreen -- 5 years of UV is going to need loads of SPF. And, you could start building a consensus of countries, like the UN or European Union, to help you better deal with the political turmoil after the blast.
Or maybe you would just push for better books on tape, and canned food, and just wait it out underground. Probably the most valuable lesson that this exercise gives is an understanding that there are lots of things outside human control. Gamma ray bursts, tsunamis, and earthquakes definitely. Terrorism possibly.
But in all these in events, humans can provide comfort and a feeling of security, whether it's by developing phones that let passengers on a doomed flight talk with their families one last time, or camera systems that help a police force gain information about the nature and identity of a bombing's perpetrators. Designs can help in that human pursuit of comfort. And maybe that's all humanity can expect in these situations; To preserve hope and provide enough comfort to let that hope re-invigorate the world population.
Looking at the extremes can re-focus your efforts on what is important in a problem, rather than what seems important, but may be ultimately impractical, or impossible.
Copyright 2004-2006 Dominic Muren and IDFuel Team