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Curious layman

Limits of engineering

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To me engineering is the manipulation of science, the light bulb being the best example.

I was reading about the graviton, apparently it's so small we won't be able to do anything with it i.e. Manufacture it for use in industry. If physics is at the stage when it's discoveries are at this point, does that mean there are certain areas of engineering where it will no longer be possible to come up with new ideas.

or are there so many different variations of chemicals etc that we can continue to come up with completely original ideas indefinitely?

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4 minutes ago, Curious layman said:

To me engineering is the manipulation of science, the light bulb being the best example.

I was reading about the graviton, apparently it's so small we won't be able to do anything with it i.e. Manufacture it for use in industry. If physics is at the stage when it's discoveries are at this point, does that mean there are certain areas of engineering where it will no longer be possible to come up with new ideas.

or are there so many different variations of chemicals etc that we can continue to come up with completely original ideas indefinitely?

Manipulation or application of science? :-)

The graviton is a quantum thingy and has not yet been found, but yes, it would be pretty small.

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I think the limits of engineering are dictated by human needs, first of all. If these needs are limited then practical application of engineering is as well. In order to increase the limits we would need to have a new (super)human with more needs then we are now. The field which almost have no limit is energy. Humans may want to build more and more powerful power stations for various purposes. Space exploration as well. Nanotechnology. Genetic engineering. Robotics.

Edited by Moreno

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I am one of those rain on the parade types in this; I think knowledge and technological capability - science and engineering - will follow more of an S-curve that tops out rather than exponential that doesn't. We can improve heat resistance or strength or hardness and may discover new materials to do those better - but real limits to how heat resistant, how hard or strong are being approached, that no amount of research will overcome.

The steep part of that curve can be exciting and from there (here) it can seem like its continuance is inevitable, yet it isn't a natural law; fail to invest in research and it stops, but if research produces diminishing returns the funding stops. I don't think we will so much reach a cut off point where nothing truly new can be discovered or done as them becoming more difficult to find or make and less revolutionary, and with economic viability more difficult to extract when we do find or make them. There are already things we are capable of doing but don't for the negative economics of them. We may well find that research itself reaches the point of negative economics.

Edited by Ken Fabian

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9 minutes ago, Ken Fabian said:

I am one of those rain on the parade types in this; I think knowledge and technological capability - science and engineering - will follow more of an S-curve that tops out rather than exponential that doesn't.

Yes, but history shows that here is a new "S" curve for each new technology.  As long as Science is used to discover we will likely continue to produce more "S" curves.  One very exciting thing about Science and Engineering is that we do not yet know what we do not know.

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52 minutes ago, OldChemE said:

Yes, but history shows that here is a new "S" curve for each new technology.  As long as Science is used to discover we will likely continue to produce more "S" curves.  One very exciting thing about Science and Engineering is that we do not yet know what we do not know.

Well, my point is those new discoveries do become harder to find as the true nature of our universe becomes well understood and the limitations of materials and processes are approached - it is just assumption, and I think it is a weak one, that there will always be more. Especially that fundamental understandings of the nature of reality can't be achieved or relied on and can be readily overturned.

History, seen from the steep part of the bigger overall S-curve (that is the product of all those individual S-curves) only makes it look like there will always be more - but I think it is an illusion. The supply of what we do not know is ultimately diminished by what we do know and the more confident we are about what we know, the less room there is for surprises. Knowledge may grow fractally and get more refined and nuanced in many fields but still come up against hard limits based on fundamental physical properties of spacetime, matter and energy.

Edited by Ken Fabian

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On 6/28/2019 at 5:57 PM, Ken Fabian said:

Well, my point is those new discoveries do become harder to find as the true nature of our universe becomes well understood and the limitations of materials and processes are approached - it is just assumption, and I think it is a weak one, that there will always be more. Especially that fundamental understandings of the nature of reality can't be achieved or relied on and can be readily overturned.

 

I see the logic behind your point-- its a good one.  I just think that in science we are not nearly as close to the point of knowing as much as there is to know.  When it comes to ultimate knowledge I think we are barely to the beginning of the "S".  Of course, I realize I cannot prove this.

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3 hours ago, OldChemE said:

I see the logic behind your point-- its a good one.  I just think that in science we are not nearly as close to the point of knowing as much as there is to know.  When it comes to ultimate knowledge I think we are barely to the beginning of the "S".  Of course, I realize I cannot prove this.

It seems quite common to believe that there are no limits - that progress is exponential (or some form of limitless growth). There are limits and I think recognising and understanding them is important.

I think we are already quite a way along that S-curve - that a more complete understanding of physical laws is not going to be greatly different to what we know now and resolving the last questions (eg reconciling gravity with quantum mechanics or understanding the nature of dark matter) won't necessarily present us with great engineering opportunities - and may well close off some long running hopes that exist because real limits are not recognised and understood..

I think the strongest materials that can be made are not likely to be enormously better than what we can make in labs now and those may never be candidates for cheap and mass produced - limits of binding forces within molecules will be a hard limit that no amount of research will overcome. Just persisting and trying harder in the face of them can be a recipe for wasting precious resources. Testing those limits to be sure of them is one thing but operating on the basis that they can be overcome isn't, and even the opportunities for spin offs will have limits.

Optimising - taking us closer to those limits, especially with respect to real world considerations (economics again) - will be a kind of ongoing development process, but could well end up with more focus on doing the same things better than on finding new things. SpaceX for example is optimising existing rocket technology and reducing its costs, not so much inventing new kinds, much as Mr Musk might wish for such possibilities. We can make supersonic passenger aircraft but we don't - the economic limits flow on from an understanding of aerodynamics that inform us that supersonic aircraft will be much more energy hungry the faster you push them and components will work under extreme conditions that make for choices between more expensive materials or ongoing maintenance costs. Or both. Or for not doing it. Can we engineer something better? Musk sees the possibilities for transport via vacuum tubes and I can too - but there are limits there also, in and on an Earth that can shake and deform as well as those pesky economic considerations. Perhaps the future of aircraft will not be faster - it hasn't been for several decades now - but will end up slower,  driven by a need for hyper-efficiency. Perhaps solar powered airships. Progress, but not quite in the way people imagine.

Where we are on the S-curve is a question - I do see areas where we will see a lot of progress but some of our economically important ones are - I think - nearing the top of their S-curve.

Edited by Ken Fabian

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5 hours ago, Ken Fabian said:

It seems quite common to believe that there are no limits - that progress is exponential (or some form of limitless growth). There are limits and I think recognising and understanding them is important.

I think we are already quite a way along that S-curve - that a more complete understanding of physical laws is not going to be greatly different to what we know now and resolving the last questions (eg reconciling gravity with quantum mechanics or understanding the nature of dark matter) won't necessarily present us with great engineering opportunities - and may well close off some long running hopes that exist because real limits are not recognised and understood..

I think the strongest materials that can be made are not likely to be enormously better than what we can make in labs now and those may never be candidates for cheap and mass produced - limits of binding forces within molecules will be a hard limit that no amount of research will overcome. Just persisting and trying harder in the face of them can be a recipe for wasting precious resources. Testing those limits to be sure of them is one thing but operating on the basis that they can be overcome isn't, and even the opportunities for spin offs will have limits.

I saw an interesting video on the idea of substituting a continuous supply of energy for material strength.

Could definitely be the way forward.

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4 hours ago, Endy0816 said:

I saw an interesting video on the idea of substituting a continuous supply of energy for material strength.

What does this even mean?

 

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2 hours ago, swansont said:

What does this even mean?

Arthur likes to refer to them as Atlas Pillars. Central idea is to use a fountain effect to provide active support for structures.

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26 minutes ago, Endy0816 said:

Arthur likes to refer to them as Atlas Pillars. Central idea is to use a fountain effect to provide active support for structures.

That really doesn’t clarify anything. 

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14 hours ago, Endy0816 said:

Could definitely be the way forward.

Endy - the video is a bit long;  can you summarise the main points for us?

I would note that the material strengths we are getting in laboratories are truly impressive - a lot of opportunity still for engineering advancement to flow through into the structures and products we use. Still a lot of room on that S-curve, even from my more pessimistic pov - and my thinking that we are getting closer to where the trend flattens off than where it is still accelerating.

I see us facing some serious problems with the course our civilisation is taking and our inability to incorporate knowledge and foresight into our decision making - we have vulnerabilities that can be helped by appropriate engineering; that looks like a different kind of focus than a less nuanced view of "progress", which seems almost to treat it like it is a natural law at play. Mismanagement - social and economic - look more capable of delivering us problems that resist any good intentions, and can reduce the growth in our capabilities and take them backwards; we are not so smart that we cannot mess things up so badly that our capability for R&D is reduced or lost.

I think we will need to be increasingly cognizant of unintended consequences; are they going to be environmentally benign, sustainable and recyclable materials? How much energy required to make them and safely dispose of them? I would be alarmed at lighter than air construction materials for example - wind blown litter is already a problem, but having chunks of crashed aircraft floating about could take litter to a whole higher level, literally. And, of course, are the most advanced materials economically viable? There are a whole lot of considerations that can put limits on applications - it is not only about the physical properties we want but about about social and environmental consequences.

Edited by Ken Fabian

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9 hours ago, swansont said:

That really doesn’t clarify anything. 

Sorry, didn't want to hash up the explanation. Easier with animations.

3 hours ago, Ken Fabian said:

Endy - the video is a bit long;  can you summarise the main points for us?

He really does explain them better in the video. I'll try...

Similar in essence to the Kugel fountain, though fountain of an Atlas Pillar would serve as a support for a structure. Pump and fluid in the Kugel fountain would be swapped for better counterparts as well. Main benefit is that the pillar needs not support its own weight, only the weight of the structure on top. Realistic drawback being that if you take away the power supply it won't support either...

 

405px-Reaching_for_the_Stars.jpg220px-Kugelball.svg.png

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kugel_fountain

Air supported structures broadly work along these lines, in terms of needing semi-continuous air pressure supplied. We replace structural strength with the energy needed for the pump, air compressor, rail gun, etc.

Edited by Endy0816

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None of that is "substituting a continuous supply of energy for material strength"

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3 hours ago, swansont said:

None of that is "substituting a continuous supply of energy for material strength"

Maybe power would be a better choice of words.

Kind of a silly example but imagine you're using a jet of water instead of a pole to support a tarp. So long as you can maintain your jet it can stand in as a substitute for an aluminium pole.

In reality you would want to use this sort of tech on otherwise difficult/impossible projects like providing suport for a space elevator.

With some tweaks there are more mundane use cases, all depends if you have the power available.

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33 minutes ago, Endy0816 said:

Maybe power would be a better choice of words.

No. Power is just energy/time.Energy is a property of things. It is not a substance; it does not have anything like material strength.  

33 minutes ago, Endy0816 said:

Kind of a silly example but imagine you're using a jet of water instead of a pole to support a tarp. So long as you can maintain your jet it can stand in as a substitute for an aluminium pole.

In reality you would want to use this sort of tech on otherwise difficult/impossible projects like providing suport for a space elevator.

With some tweaks there are more mundane use cases, all depends if you have the power available.

In this, and the Kugel fountain example above, the support is from water, not energy.

The main difference is that it's dynamic rather than static. But energy (or power) is not the proper descriptive term for what's going on. 

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On 6/30/2019 at 8:09 PM, Endy0816 said:

...substituting a continuous supply of energy for material strength.

I've tried to imagine how electro-magnets might be used for tensile strength in some kind of chain - substituting for physical material strength. Hard to imagine it could be as strong as, well, chain but I don't really know how well they might work and what theoretical as well as practical limits would apply. Some things like that have made their way into SF - "The Moon Goddess and The Son" (Kingsbury?) had a mass driver system in orbit made of strung out sections that could concertina as it caught and launched stuff. Vague recollections of a laser up the butt type system (or was it another mass driver) for the launch from Earth in the same novel, that might rate as an example of external energy displacing onboard fuel. They may be technically feasible - but otherwise not. Or, more optimistically, not yet.

I raised the issue of limits to physical material strength as a hard limit we aren't going to be able to push past - and maybe there are technologies and applications that can work around them, but I suspect the applications will be very limited - and have limits of their own. It doesn't make me change my view that science and engineering are not on a path of endless unlimited development.

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21 hours ago, swansont said:

No. Power is just energy/time.Energy is a property of things. It is not a substance; it does not have anything like material strength.  

In this, and the Kugel fountain example above, the support is from water, not energy.

The main difference is that it's dynamic rather than static. But energy (or power) is not the proper descriptive term for what's going on. 

I think we're thinking of different things I'm just talking about the electrical energy for your pump or equivalent.  I know you're not physically swapping one for the other but effectively doing that.

12 hours ago, Ken Fabian said:

I've tried to imagine how electro-magnets might be used for tensile strength in some kind of chain - substituting for physical material strength. Hard to imagine it could be as strong as, well, chain but I don't really know how well they might work and what theoretical as well as practical limits would apply. Some things like that have made their way into SF - "The Moon Goddess and The Son" (Kingsbury?) had a mass driver system in orbit made of strung out sections that could concertina as it caught and launched stuff. Vague recollections of a laser up the butt type system (or was it another mass driver) for the launch from Earth in the same novel, that might rate as an example of external energy displacing onboard fuel. They may be technically feasible - but otherwise not. Or, more optimistically, not yet.

I raised the issue of limits to physical material strength as a hard limit we aren't going to be able to push past - and maybe there are technologies and applications that can work around them, but I suspect the applications will be very limited - and have limits of their own. It doesn't make me change my view that science and engineering are not on a path of endless unlimited development.

That would definitely be along similar lines. We've managed 100 Teslas sustainably and 1200 briefly. Fridge magnets are about 0.01 Teslas for reference. Larger fields are crazy strong but magnetic force does fall off fast.

Always been a give and take in terms of engineering though. Everything has some kind of drawback you have to compensate for.

Laser up the butt, lol, going to have remember that description.

I do agree we'll eventually run up against hard limits but think that point is far far into the future. New advances opening up additional opportunities for new advancements. Automation providing the bulk of all labor and AI informing the designs could allow us to undertake projects that might seem impossible today.

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37 minutes ago, Endy0816 said:

I think we're thinking of different things

It's obvious that this is the case. But it's physics, and terms have specific meanings.

37 minutes ago, Endy0816 said:

I'm just talking about the electrical energy for your pump or equivalent.  I know you're not physically swapping one for the other but effectively doing that.

The reason why you can't just say "use energy instead" is that it matters how you implement your idea. I could levitate something with a laser, but the power requirement would be huge, because photons don't have much momentum.

If I did so it's still wrong to say that one is "substituting a continuous supply of energy for material strength" because those concepts and properties are not interchangeable. 

 

 

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Well I think that engineering may not be affected from now on due to upgrades in science as it did 200 years ago. The reason is that as the time passes , modern physics would concentrate on things we cant actually use , but they will only satisfy our curiousity about how the world works . Of course we haven't reached the top of  engineering  , but the progress made on engineering will become less and less in the future,

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