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A blog for electronics professionals, amateurs, hackers, and anyone interested in the world of electronics.

17 March 2011

The Brotherhood (and Sisterhood) of Engineers

I have an awful lot of updates to write; The designs of Prospero and Miranda (Vector Network Analyser and JTAG programmer respectively) are coming on nicely, and there is a huge amount to say. But I am not going to, at least not yet. There are much more important issues I need to speak about.

Japan. One week on and things are at least starting to be a little clearer, but the media are largely still hysterical and uninformed. Even respected sources such as the BBC, CNN and New York Times are having trouble getting good quality information. For example, the BBC was presenting the loss of coolant in the used fuel storage tank as "current" more than 18 hours after the event. Media outlets are even copying things off each other, ending up with a strange sort of echoing feedback loop. Instead of reporting the known facts, they are falling back on the old method of wheeling in some supposed expert or other, who is then made to hypothesise what may be happening. The Japanese broadcaster NHK is not massively better, but at least seems to have faster access to what facts there are. You can currently stream NHK here via Ustream: . Their main fault is not displaying a "repeat" caption on video that might be an hour or two old, giving the impression that it is live.

Enough complaining though. I do not propose to cover the horrendous humanitarian situation. Far better people than I have written about it, and anything I could add would be pointless. You have seen the photographs and the news footage, they all speak louder than words.

My first comment is what happened in Tokyo. Or rather, what didn't happen in Tokyo. I don't know for sure what the earthquake measured in the city centre, it would be considerably less than the 9.0 at the epicentre, but still up around the 7.8 level. Beyond what they were theoretically designed to withstand.

If you are an engineer (of whatever discipline) you will know that engineers share that intangible "something". Whether you are in electronics, automotive, structural or civil engineering, we all share the universal foundations of maths and science and a similar outlook on life. The attitude of doing the best you can, going that bit beyond the specification, to make the best possible product, whatever it happens to be. Because you just never know when that little extra can make a big difference.

Quite often, when we do our jobs right, nothing happens. A Formula 1 car crashes backwards into a concrete wall at 150 mph and the driver walks away. The media call it luck, or maybe God's will. What they rarely mention is the truth: Thousands, possibly millions of hours of hard work by clever, educated, experienced engineers. To every single one of the architects, designers, testers and yes, even you bureaucrats who came up with and enforced the Tokyo building regulations, you have my utmost respect. So far as I am aware, nothing happened. No pictures flashed around the globe of skyscrapers that collapsed. No footage of thousands of sobbing bereaved Tokyo people. Other areas weren't so lucky, with fires breaking out and many people losing their lives. Let us hope that in future years that those areas can enjoy nothing happening too. It won't be luck that does that. It won't be God. It will be engineers. Invisible, un-named, unseen. Working hard to make sure nothing happens. That makes me proud.

Events move on however, and all the airtime is now being devoted to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. I'm not going to say much about nuclear plant engineering. At this time we don't have much information about how things failed and what the mechanims were, so it is difficult to say anything except to ask why they think it is a good idea to build nuclear plants near sea level on the coast facing the Pacific tectonic plate boundary, which has historically experienced powerful earthquakes and tsunamis. I believe nuclear power has a big future in the future low-carbon world, but not if they build fundamental weaknesses into power plants, relying on luck for nothing to happen.

Finally. I don't have many heroes on my list, and there are certainly no overpaid footballers or other sportsmen and women on it. The emergency workers who ran into the World Trade Centre towers when any normal human being would have been running away are certainly on it. Hell yes. I think that list has just acquired some more names; The engineers, technicians and others who are currently battling to stop Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant becoming a hot Uranium dust emitter. These people must know that their lives are probably going to be severely shortened by what they are having to do. Ladies and gentlemen of Fukushima Daiichi plant number 1, you have my profound respect and admiration. Japanese popular culture has a long history of heroes and superheroes. I suspect they have just found some real superheroes, whose actions will be remembered long into the future.

I salute you all.

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