Who earned an old-style Nobel Prize in 2019?

One of the (many) interesting angles in Brian Keating’s Losing the Nobel Prize (see previous post 1; also previous post 2) was that the Nobel in Physics was previously awarded for recently-developed stuff that had obvious near-term practical value for humans.

Marconi and Braun won in 1909 for the prize in “Physics” for their work in radio, which I think today we would call “engineering.” Nils Gustaf Dalén won in 1912 for improving lighthouses with a gas regulator.

What if the Nobel prize system still worked this way? They couldn’t reach back five decades, as they did with the Higgs boson (postulated 1964; confirmed 2012; Nobel Prize 2013). Who would have earned the prize for an advancement made in 2019?

My nomination: the team behind Garmin Autoland. It seems doubtful that the headline use will be common, but the technology could be adapted to yield huge safety improvements even for healthy two-pilot crews. The weather-avoidance system, for example, could suggest to pilots “Are you sure that you don’t want to adopt the following flight path?” The flap and gear extension systems could say “Would you like to add flaps and gear now that you’re lined up on final?”

Why it is important for humanity: a lot of people ride as passengers in airplanes. It is upsetting when airplanes crash (but, to judge by relative media coverage, hardly anyone cares about automobile crashes).

Reader: What are your picks? I guess you could also go back a couple of years (but not 49!) to things that proved themselves useful in 2019.


  • this Cirrus video, in which the presumed wife-mother does not seem too concerned about the expiration of the pilot (presumed husband-father) as she activates Garmin Autoland and looks forward to the next stage of her life journey
  • TIME magazine’s best inventions of 2019 (potential candidates from the folks who remind us that Greta Thunberg is #1 out of 8 billion)
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Hybrid cruise ship: not as dumb as it sounds

We recently made it through the Northwest Passage on the MS Roald Amundsen, a diesel-hybrid cruise ship.

What could be dumber than putting a huge bank of batteries into a machine that needs to be generating power constantly, e.g., to run lights, water desalination, air conditioning, sewage treatment, etc.?

At a talk by the ship’s chief engineer, Jonny Johnsen, we learned that this may make good engineering sense. The key insight is that it is most efficient to run any of the four diesel engines at 80 percent power. Although the ship can sail for 30 minutes at 14 knots on the battery alone, that’s not the point of the batteries. The idea is to have a power reserve that does not require keeping an extra engine at idle. If the ship needs a sudden burst of power for maneuvering, the power comes from the battery while perhaps just a single engine is running. After the demand is gone, the engine keeps running at 80 percent to recharge the batteries.

The batteries enable the crew to run just one engine without fearing a blackout (though maybe California-based passengers would feel right at home in such an event?).

The engines are reasonably efficient to begin with, over 50 percent before heat recovery, which is used to heat water, heat the cabins, heat the pool/hot tubs, and help with desalinization. But having a big bank of batteries makes the overall trip more efficient. The engineer said that he expected we would use 300,000 liters of diesel for the trip from Greenland to Nome, Alaska. Divided by the 472 passengers who were on board, that’s only 169 gallons in a three-week period. An SUV-owning American who liked to drive a lot might consume more!

More engineering facts:

  • the ship produces 156 cubic meters/day of fresh water via two RO systems (force seawater through a membrane and dump the brine overboard); 300,000 liters per day
  • the ship does not anchor; computers, GPS, swiveling propellers (2) and bow thrusters (2) maintain station (as in https://philip.greenspun.com/blog/2019/08/21/movie-the-last-breath/ )
  • for NOx emissions control, the engines use the same “add blue” urea as European diesel cars
  • the ship has a conventional anti-roll stabilizer system
  • the ship is rated Polar Class 6, which means we could go through 70 cm of level ice
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Why don’t airplanes have parking sensors for the wingtips?

At a recent aviation gathering, the topic of the Boeing 737 MAX came up. I gave my usual spiel about how TI was able to make the Speak & Spell in 1978. Why couldn’t a B737 have had a $1 voice synthesis chip saying “trimming forward” when MCAS was running, potentially prompting pilots to hit the trim interrupt switches much earlier. And why couldn’t the rest of our aircraft have voice warnings instead of simply beeping with different tones for different kinds of problems, e.g., gear not down, approaching a stall, etc.

An airline pilot responded “We lose millions of dollars every year from minor collisions on the ramp. If I buy a car for $20,000 it will come with parking sensors. Why doesn’t a $50 million jet have sensors in the wingtips to warn of a collision?”

I would love to know the answer to this question! It does not seem as though FAA certification would be a huge hassle given that the system won’t be used in flight. The sensors are commercially available from Bosch (parking ultrasonic; rear radar).

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What is the point of 5G in a country that has coverage problems?

People are complaining that the latest iPhones can’t support 5G, a high-speed cellular data standard that uses high frequencies and therefore will presumably require new antenna and radio circuits.

I am not sure what the point of 5G is in the US, though. The range and ability to transmit through walls, rain, etc. is inferior with 5G. The problem with the US is not that the 30-50 Mbit speeds in areas with good LTE (4G, sort of) coverage are not fast enough. It is that the speed in a lot of places is 0 Mbps (i.e., there is no coverage).

Readers: What will be the practical advantage of 5G over LTE?

Separately, if 5G does prove useful, will 5G make our traffic-choked suburbs even less attractive compared to cities? If carriers didn’t want to invest in good LTE coverage for American suburbs why would they build 5G towers every 1,500’ in medium-density environments?

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Scale under the floor of a cruise ship cabin to reduce buffet consumption?

The biggest and best helicopter tour operators have scales hidden underneath the floor at the customer service counter. Thus they’re able to quickly capture passenger weights, oftentimes without the customers being aware.

What about the same technology for cruise ship cabins? Put a scale near the door and a display so that the passenger can see his or her current weight. This could reduce costs since a passenger who realized that he or she was gaining 0.5 lbs. per day could cut back at the buffet.

(On our recent Northwest Passage cruise on Hurtigruten, there was no scale in the room and also none in the (small) gym. Due to the challenges of resupplying in the High Arctic combined presumably with people pigging out, the ship ran out of a bunch of items prior to the end of the trip. The poor crew had to go 10 days without fresh fruit. The Germans were not happy that the yogurt had run out.)

Some of our food temptations:

(The French chef, Julien, cannot be held responsible for the poutine. I was the one who pointed out that we needed to celebrate Canada’s greatest culinary achievement and the kitchen crew raided a supermarket in Nunavut for cheese curds.)

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Why is it difficult to make a reliable refrigerator?

We had a 7-year-old GE refrigerator that would fail every couple of years, requiring $400-500 in service. We got tired of throwing out spoiled food and living out of coolers for 3-4 days so we invested $2,600 in a KitchenAid (one of the few with the same dimensions as the old GE, which fit into a kitchen recess that an architect thought was a good idea).

The KitchenAid failed after three weeks, unable to keep the refrigerator side cooler than 50 degrees. (It has a separate evaporator on the freezer side, so we can live on microwave pizza.)

Given decades of experience and continuous improvements in electronics, why is it difficult to engineer and build a working refrigerator? A modern Honda or Toyota may run for three years and 36,000 miles without anything failing, despite being exposed to hot and cold temperatures and vibration. The car has myriad systems, each of which could fail independently, and yet generally these all soldier on for 5-7 years before the first failure of any kind.

“Owner Satisfaction” is terrible with all refrigerators, according to Consumer Reports. LG is the only brand that achieves a 5/10. Whirlpool and KitchenAid are down at 3/10. Compare to 9/10 for Bosch or Miele dishwashers or 9/10 for LG washing machines.

What’s the challenge with an apparently simple fridge, sitting in a kitchen that is kept within +/- 5 degrees of 72?

[We discovered during this process why modern McMansions are always built with at least two refrigerators. BestBuy refused to accept a return on the unit, citing that it was purchased more than 15 days previously. Whirlpool/KitchenAid wouldn’t answer the phone on a Sunday, but when I got hold of them on Monday morning they cheerfully described their full warranty. They would be happy to come look at the fridge and begin the process of diagnosing the failure… in October. Was that normal? “Oh yes,” said the agent on September 17, “In a lot of areas I’m scheduling the second or third week of October as the first available visit.”]

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Ten years since Deepwater Horizon set a depth record

This month marks the 10th anniversary of Deepwater Horizon setting a record by drilling a 35,000′-deep hole (a few months later, of course, we got to see the unfortunate flip side of the edge of engineering success).

I’ll use the occasion to relate some notes from reading The Gulf: The Making of An American Sea, a book that isn’t a single narrative story, but contains some interesting facts across a range of domains.

The Gulf is the origin of the Gulf Stream:

The Stream builds from a vigorous loop current in the Gulf, formed from the heat and energy of the Yucatán and Caribbean currents and the sun. … “Christopher Columbus found the way to the New World, but Ponce de León found the way back.”

Florida is named for a Spanish “feast of flowers”:

Present-day Floridians prefer to think of the Spaniard as coming upon a land that spoke to him with the colors, fragrance, and, indeed, flowers of subtropical exuberance. It’s a quaint notion that says less about a conquistador’s inclinations than about a contemporary people who use the orderly landscaping around their homes and in their parks to picture early Florida, and know little of the harsh wildness that the Spanish often engaged in North America. Ponce de León’s view of the shore would have taken in dune grass, vine-tangled forests, and long stretches of scrubland of virtually impassable saw palmettos. There would have been few flowers. As devout Roman Catholics, the Spanish often named a place for the religious day on which they discovered it. If the expedition had made landfall farther north, then Delaware or New Jersey, still waiting for spring flowers, might be known today as Florida.

Native Americans knew about the invaders, but apparently could not get organized to stop them, even though the Spanish were generally clueless (they did not find the mouth of the Mississippi River for many decades after one would have expected them to).

Thousands of natives lived on the Gulf coast at the time, with strong defenses and effective communication networks that reached great distances across land and water. Seafaring people, they did not live in primitive isolation, as the Spanish assumed. Their world reached beyond horizons. Indeed, they knew of the Spanish before the Spanish knew of them. They were aware of the enslaving and killing of Indians in the Bahamas, Hispaniola, and Cuba. Shipwrecks, too, so common in the age, gave away the presence of others. Flotsam had been washing onto Indian shores around the Gulf since the early days of European exploration, and the “gear of foreign dead men,” to quote T. S. Eliot, sometimes included dead men themselves, their faces oddly covered with hair and their bodies weighted with clothing. On occasion, a live one crawled onto the beach, revealing even more about the foreigners. The first time Ponce de León met the Calusa, whom he knew nothing about, a native greeted his expedition with Spanish words.

The natives, fed on oysters, were taller and healthier than the Spanish, who initially starved on the Gulf coast due to their inability to harvest the resources. (Watermelon was among the crops being grown by Indians.) Industrial fishing by Europeans peaked circa 1900 and the fish population has never recovered. Rich men and women (no other gender IDs are mentioned) came down from the Northeast on the new railroads and hunted for 200+ lb. tarpon in the Gulf. These fish were becoming “scarce and shy” by 1895.

Between 1880 and 1933, Louisiana surrendered 3.5 million alligators to the market; Florida, twice as many. The alligator and egret populations went into tailspins simultaneously. The difference was that hardly anyone cared about the welfare of alligators; their one salvation was the plume market. … The Great War between nations redirected resources away from civilian markets and fashion. Women’s outfits shed several yards of cloth, and hats grew smaller, in part to complement the latest bobbed hairstyle and accommodate new enclosed automobile designs. When women working the red-light districts, which were booming around military installations, took a fancy to feather-wear, women of proper society boxed up their plume hats for fear of mistaken identity. Vanity once again succeeded where moral persuasion had not.

The origins of modern beachfront high-rise development on the Gulf dates to the 1928 opening of the Don CeSar Hotel on “deep-set concrete pyramid footings” in St. Pete Beach, Florida. The wind-filled enemies of these buildings are named after the Mayan god Huracan. (Hurricane Ike did $50 billion of damage to Galveston and surrounding areas in 2008.) Despite the hurricanes, the population of Florida has grown from 3 million in 1950 to more than 20 million today. The author says that mosquito control, notably from DDT, was critical for this expansion.

How did the practice of flying into hurricanes originate?

Airborne weather chasers were invaluable for tracking hurricanes. The first storm cowboy in history lifted off from Bryan Field in Texas during World War II. His name was Joseph Duckworth, a flight instructor in the US Army Air Corps. The storm that earned him recognition as the original hurricane hunter was another Gulf native. It organized on a July day in 1943, one hundred miles south of the Mississippi coast. At the time, Duckworth was training British airmen in instrument flight using the AT-6 Texan single-engine trainer. Experienced combat pilots, the Brits hated the Texan, a decrepit airplane beneath their expertise. When the July hurricane prompted an order to evacuate the planes from Bryan Field, their disdain for the aircraft deepened. The AT-6 wasn’t worth saving at the risk of British lives, the trainees said. Coming to its defense, Duckworth set out to prove both the plane’s sturdiness and the merits of instrument navigation. He wagered a highball with the Brits that he could fly the AT-6 into the hurricane and live to tell about it. Without official permission, he and a navigator, Lieutenant Colonel Ralph O’Hair, belted in, took off, and bored into the black wall of the storm, where, O’Hair later said, they were “tossed about like a stick in a dog’s mouth.” They discovered the eye—calm and quiet, ten miles across—and saw the ground below. After circling inside, they plunged back through the wild darkness.

It was Lyndon Johnson who transferred responsibility for dealing with the Mississippi and the New Orleans levees from the state to the Federal government:

When Katrina hurled its way through New Orleans forty years from the day Betsy was identified as a hurricane, bureaucracy, scandals, and insufficient funds had left the Corps’s levee project a work still in progress.

Shipwreck was a constant hazard:

The Coast Survey’s Ferdinand Gerdes reported bitterly that within fifteen minutes of a ship’s running up on a reef, “five or six vessels under the denomination of wreckers” would converge on it like ants at a June picnic. In turn, making navigation safer jeopardized the wreckers’ lucrative vocation. Legend has it that these “honest-looking men” tore down the Survey’s beacons and markers, and lit phony lighthouse signals to abet disaster.

Thanks to the miracle of immigration (from other U.S. states as well as from foreign countries), Floridians today live in Puerto Ricans of the 1950s:

As buildings, modern-day condominiums became attractive in places where the population had outgrown the availability of land, … Puerto Rico, where condominiums had served the crowded island commonwealth since the 1950s, exported its building ideas to south Florida. When Congress allowed the Federal Housing Administration to insure mortgages on condominiums, construction took off. By the late 1960s, so-called supertowers were stacking humanity as high as fifty stories. To Florida developers, condominiums were an ingenious way to sell a single waterfront lot to fifty, a hundred, or more buyers. … At the millennium, Cape Coral was the fastest growing US city, with a population of 100,000 or more. Pricey Sanibel had an untaxing population density of 356 people per square mile, allowing the coexistence of human and wildlife habitation. Affordable Fort Myers had 2,065 people per square mile and Sarasota 3,540, allowing little more than the coexistence of humans and concrete.

I had hoped to get a definitive explanation of the red tide phenomenon that renders Gulf Coast beaches noxious for quite a few weeks per year. Red tide seems to be fueled by human discharges, but the precise mechanism does not seem to be understood.

A map in the 1954 Gulf study conducted by the US Public Health Service uses building-shaped icons to show the placement of wastewater treatment plants in the region. They’re all on bays and rivers. Black icons indicate plants dumping poorly treated waste, and from Corpus Christi to Naples, they are bunched up like flies on an outhouse.17 The study also mentions red tides, natural warm-water algal blooms that discolor the surface with a veneer of red, brown, or green. In that pivotal decade of the 1950s, scientists were noticing more of these noxious events in the Gulf. Red tides irritate people’s eyes and lungs and leave heaps of dead sea life on the beach. Manatees are especially hard-hit. Cabeza de Vaca may have seen outbreaks in Texas, and Diego Lopez de Collogudo, a Franciscan monk, chronicled what was likely a red tide striking Yucatán in 1648: a “foul odor” and “mountain of dead fish.” Experts regard an 1844 event on the Florida panhandle, near where Leonard Destin fished, as the first documented red tide, although no one knew what it was. “Poison water,” people called the events. A 1935 outbreak off South Padre Island that killed two-inch mullet, eight-foot tarpon, and everything in between left researchers flummoxed.18 Then, after a 1947 red tide devastated most of the sponge beds, from which Tarpon Springs never fully recovered, microscope-peering scientists determined that the malicious rafts of algae discharge a toxin that paralyzes the respiratory system of marine life. But they didn’t know how or why, or from where exactly the red tides originate. To control red tides, scientists tried dousing a few with copper sulfate. This only killed more fish. In the 1980s and ’90s, off the south Florida and south Texas coasts, red tides bloomed in higher numbers. As it happened, ranchers in Texas were raising more cattle than ever, and slaughterhouse capacity doubled. In Florida, the exploding residential population ignited a chain reaction in lawn fertilizer use, facilitated by ambrosial garden centers at big-box stores like Home Depot, Lowe’s, and Wal-Mart and monthly lawn treatment service provided by companies like TruGreen and Scotts. Some scientists were connecting the intensity of red tides to green grass, purgative cows, and gushing sewer pipes, vexing some of their colleagues, who claimed that evidence didn’t exist to confirm the connections. The press reported algal blooms as one of nature’s cruel mysteries, and sometimes falsely identified pollution-induced fish kills as red tide, incriminating nature instead of the actual offender.

The author characterizes humans as generally trashing the Gulf. The author says that a Proctor & Gamble (owners of Gillette!) diaper factory in Florida has done far more damage to the Gulf than Deepwater Horizon, but nobody seems to care. In addition to the obvious pollution, agricultural runoff from the Midwest creates massive dead zones within the gulf.

TIME’S 1988 “FILTHY SEAS” cover story noted what it called dead zones. There were a few in nearshore waters around the US, all modest in size compared with one, which was three hundred miles long and ten wide and “adrift in the Gulf of Mexico.” Over the next few years, this lifeless region, fronting the coast of Louisiana, reaching to eastern Texas in one direction and to Alabama in the other, would grow to the size of New Jersey. It lingered as more or less a giant underwater vacuum chamber sucked clean of dissolved oxygen.

All manner of sea life that didn’t get out when conditions turned stale met the same suffocating fate. The bottom was littered with the dead—a tragic wasteland of crab, mollusk, and sea worm remains. It was

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How to get a free tie and wristwatch

Day 2 of EAA AirVenture and the air is filled with fast jets.

Martin-Baker, the family-run English company that makes ejection seats, won the Aero Club of New England’s Cabot Award this year. The British executive accepting the award failed to adhere to American Facebook standards. He said “it is an honor and a pleasure,” not “we’re honored and humbled.”

Thinking of taking politicians’ advice to go into STEM? One engineer in the early days ejected 18 times. Those first devices required the pilot to pull a parachute rip chord after being rocketed out of a plane (the company still operates two Gloster Meteor World War II jet fighters plus a Wile E. Coyote-style rocket test track near Belfast (for which expired air-to-air missile rockets are used)).

Roughly 80,000 seats have been made and 7,600 used (latest). The company refrained from offering a “Mk 13” version of the seat. Martin-Baker is managed by engineers and the product is far more complex than one would expect. Numerous airbags deploy in precise sequence to try to prevent a pilot from being injured during the ejection. (John McCain is the most famous pilot to have been injured by the process; the injuries that some people imagine he sustained as a POW were actually inflicted by not being positioned properly during ejection. The latest and greatest Martin-Baker seats require less of the pilot.)

The highlight of the award lunch was meeting Col. Joe Kittinger, who has used a Martin-Baker seat twice. He wore the tie that the company gives to everyone who ejects and the watch that Martin-Baker gives to pilots who shoot down an enemy plane and then are forced to eject. (Apologies for the iPhone photos taken in dim light; where’s the Google Pixel when you need it?)

As with the B-17 bomber crews who went out to Germany in 1943, I am not surprised that someone would go out on that first mission, but it is tough to imagine going out for the second.

Here’s to the guys like Joe Kittinger II whose bravery took most of the risk out of the flying that we do today and thereby enabled a mass aviation celebration like AirVenture (“Oshkosh”).

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Would it be more or less difficult to put a human on the moon today?

As part of a recent trip to D.C., I enjoyed seeing a projection of a Saturn V rocket on the Washington Monument:

What if we tried to do this again? Would it be easier or harder to accomplish? As part of the new Corvette announcement, a GM executive talked about the “women and men” whose designs and efforts got us to the moon. We still have women and men and now also have a rainbow of additional genders. If diversity is our strength, shouldn’t it be easier to get to the moon?

But what, specifically, would be easier to engineer?

It seems as though guidance would be much easier, but the MIT Draper Lab guidance systems in Apollo worked well, didn’t they?

Are we able to build life support environments much more easily and cheaply now that we’ve had all of this space station experience? Or does our reduced risk tolerance and love of bureaucracy actually make it harder and more expensive to build space vehicles for humans?

[Separately, here’s how one of the Facebook righteous thought about the glorious days of JFK and Apollo 11 compared to these dark times when our president cannot even get organized to get to the brink of nuclear war

In awe about a President worthy about setting point and making Americans work towards that goal…what inspiration 50 years later…#apollo11…current drumph not worthy of even 1 year celebration. Seriously people…think…and change the trajectory…at least for our incredible chidren. In awe of their inspiring questions…give love and our children a chance…

JFK gave our children a chance to be incinerated in a nuclear war?]


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Crazy cheap solar power plant

“World’s Largest Solar Power Plant Switched On” (Forbes):

The $870 million project was the result of a competitive tender process that will see electricity from the site sold to the Emirates Water and Electricity Company (EWEC) for around 2.4 cents per kWh, a record at the time of the auction and a record for any completed solar project. It was built by the Indian firm Sterling & Wilson with nearly 3000 people working on site during the peak of activity.

Can this be right? These profit-driven folks can recover their $870 million by selling power at 2.4 cents/kWh? That’s more or less free (the average cost in the U.S. to consumers is about 13 cents/kWh, which of course includes distribution).

Most parts of the U.S. are not as sunny as the UAE, but some parts are. Could we build a monster plant like this in Arizona or Nevada and run the power back to the cloudy East Coast? A friend who used to run a mutual fund that invested in this area said, “It would be a no-brainer economically to run a DC high voltage line from wind farms in Oklahoma to New York City. You could shut down every fossil fuel power plant in New York. But the U.S. power grid is fragmented and the people who stand to benefit from that have enough politicians in their pockets to keep it fragmented. So you’ll never see that power line built.”

Vaguely related: This investor considers Jeff Immelt to be the most incompetent executive in recent American business history. “GE actually made windmills so they knew that the price was going to drop below that of coal-fired power plants,” he said. “Yet still, GE bought Alstom, which has been disastrous. Even if the market for fossil fuel plants had held up, GE was locking itself into French labor, which any rational businessperson would seek to avoid. It is fair to say that the folks at Alstom were a lot smarter than anyone at GE.”

For the rest of the world, where they aren’t as plagued by cronyism in power transmission as we are, will it be time to go nuts with electricity (cars, planes, heat pumps, etc.)?

Also, does this mean we don’t have to worry about about climate change and CO2? Who is going to bother burning fossil fuels for any reason if they can get electricity for 2.4 cents/kWh plus reasonable transmission fees? (Aviation? Just turn the electricity into hydrogen and then run your electric motors off a fuel cell!) We were terrified in the 1970s about burying ourselves in nuclear waste. Then it turned out that we couldn’t operate nuclear plants economically, so the amount of waste generated was much smaller than anticipated (we just burned natural gas and dumped out CO2 instead!).

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