Modern day boilermakers

What do Rocket Scientists and Boilermakers have in common?

Steamboat boiler explosion

Helen McGregor 1830 Wikipedia

Sorry there is no punch line to that joke, but there is an answer in there somewhere; give me a few paragraphs to find it.

Most Americans familiar with the history of the industrial revolution, or engineering are familiar with the unconscionable number of deaths related to boiler explosions. Just to give you an idea of how serious the situation could be, in 1865 approximately 1,600 of the 2,400 passengers aboard the SS Sultana dies when 3 of the 4 boilers exploded. All of this lead to the formation of ASMEThe American Society of Mechanical Engineers. Despite the name ASME is now multidisciplinary and world wide. I guess it would be too hard now to change their name to Global Society of Engineering & Stuff (GSES).

Fast forward 100+ years from the Sultana accident and we have a wide variety of engineering fields and disciplines, and thousands of sub specialties; and almost none of them are boilermakers. Yet ASME’s biggest area is pressure vessel code. Last week I spent a week in Vegas for training on Section VIII Div I. A handful of you will know what this is, for everyone else “pressure vessel design code” is a sufficient explanation.

view from the cosmopolitan in Vegas with Haley

The view from the pool at the Cosmopolitan. We were there to see Blink-182, great show.

“Wait, I thought you worked at NASA?” you might say. That’s right, at Stennis Space Center we have nearly 1,000 pressurized vessels. And to keep the center running right a lot of work goes into making sure those vessels don’t fail. And by fail I mean either exploding, or more likely, cracking/leaking liquid nitrogen, hydrogen, or oxygen everywhere.

NASA Stennis A3 Rocket Test Stand

Construction of A3 test stand at Stennis Space Center. Capable of test firing rocket engines under vacuum.

“Aren’t you a Material Science Engineer or something? I thought you played with lasers and x-rays?” Another good question. Yes my BS is in Material Science Engineering, and I still play with X-rays sometimes, as well as several other forms of NDE (Non-Destructive Examination). I work with Mechanical Engineers, Electrical Engineers, Industrial Engineers, Certified Inspectors, a variety of highly specialized machinists, welders, etc.; and during training this last week I met programmers, chemical engineers, and just about every variety of engineering discipline you can think of.

In the last century or two, while the field of engineering has drastically grown and subdivided, it still takes all of them to make a good product at the end of the day. Not every engineer is a mechanical engineer, the same way not everyone that works at NASA is a rocket scientist. ASME was formed to prevent loss of life from poorly made boilers. That president of smart engineering, and value of life in the pursuit of advancements in science and industry, set the stage in the 19th century for what NASA has done in the 20th and 21st centuries.


Graduating with a degree AND a resume

Boise State Engineering #13 in public undergraduate Engineering programs.

For those of you that don’t know I Graduated w my BS in Material Science & Engineering for +Boise State University in 2009. While there I was afforded with the unique opportunity while there of working on three different research projects. Most Universities with nationally ranked Engineering programs don’t let undergraduates touch research, let alone pay them to do it. The longest of the three projects is in the October issue of The Journal of Solid State Chemistry,
I also had the opportunity to present that same research at PacRim8
This isn’t meant to be a brag post, because honestly while I’m smart, I’m not smarter than thousands of other students graduating every year who didn’t have the opportunity to graduate with a resume in addition to a degree. I graduated with a great education, having passed the FE, with a 5 year degree, a laundry list of scientific equipment acronyms I know how to run (SEM, XRD, TEM, STM, etc.),  and a 5 year technical resume.

If you in the wild time of a life where you are trying to figure out how to go about transitioning through college and into the real world (whether you are still in high school, or already in college) I would give you two conjoined pieces of advice:

1) Look for opportunities! Look for an environment rich in opportunities. One of the greatest advantages to going to a school like MIT isn’t the absolute hell they will put you through to get your degree. It is the status of the degree that says “I’m smart enough to cut it at MIT”, the opportunities that degree will provide; and almost more importantly, the opportunities that will be provided to you WHILE you are there. One reason many people join fraternaties and sororieties is for the network, and opportunities that often come up when connected to those networks, though the greek system is not necessarily the best or only network on campus. Join clubs (or at least show up to the meetings for the free pizza and listen until the talk about doing something you want to be involved in) Engineers w/o Borders is a great one for the future engineers out there. If you have a specific dream or asperation, start chasing it now, don’t wait till later, there will always be a later, and if you make that awesome contact “too early” the worst thing they could say is “call me when…” and then you have a legitimate reason to bug them later on. Even if you think “it would be cool to…” then pursue it. It doesn’t take a whole lot of effort to google up whoever is successfully doing whatever it is you want to do and reach out to them. (tip: don’t just reach out to top dog, reach out to every person who looks like they have experience in what you want to do, especially if there is some sort of connection, even if that connection is that you both live in the same state or that you both like [insert a movie/book/tv show/artist/whatever here])

2) Take those opportunities! Both of the first two undergraduate research positions I landed was because of one simple fact that I don’t think I’ve told many people. I was possibly the only person to apply, and I followed up. It was really that simple. It helped that I was in a new program (Material Science had just started its undergraduate program a few years earlier), and every professor in the program had multiple research projects going on.  In no way am I saying “give up on your dreams” and take the first thing that comes along. But I am saying DO NOT hold out for something better to come along when you still have no idea what better is. If you have no idea exactly what you want to do, then you would be stupid (don’t worry we are all stupid at times) to turn an opportunity simply because you don’t know if you would like it.


I have brought this up a few times on Social Media over the last few months as I have hit different milestones; acceptance, passing peer-review, preliminary online publishing, etc.

But now the full article, with color figures, is available online.

Transmission electron microscopic study of pyrochlore to defect-fluorite transition in rare-earth pyrohafnates

Fig. 1. Schematic of the partial pyrochlore unit cell showing different cationic and anionic (O) sites.

It’s still free and open as I’m posting this, but I’m not sure it will stay that way forever. Hopefully in the not too distant future I’ll post a slideshare, or a video explanation. I’ll also check with Boise State to see if I’m allowed to publish the poster I presented on this same research at PacRim ’10 Conference.

I don’t love math… It’s just a theory.

Prize awarded for largest mathematical proof – physics-math – 09 September 2011 – New Scientist

I love numbers and science, their simplicity and absoluteness. In an equation, if it is solvable, then there is a rational explanation for the solution. In many cases there is only one correct answer. All of my favorite science and engineering puzzles are this way. With one elegant indisputable solution. Unfortunately life is not always, or even usually, this way. Possibly why I love hard science (not soft science like psychology or part of biology) so much. It is ordered and logical, once you finally figure it out.

Up until today I thought I like math. I was actually under the impression that I enjoyed math itself. Until I read the above article and realized that the thought of numbers and equations that take up hundreds of thousands of pages, decades, and dozens of Ph.Ds to solve. It gave me a headache just thinking about math that complex. I’m not saying that I couldn’t read Aschbacher’s 1200 page paper and understand most of it. Granted it may take me as long to fully understand it as it took him to write it. But the thought of having a job like his filled me with dread. Which to me was odd, because if I truly LOVED numbers and math as I thought I did, I should relish the thought of diving into a pool of unsolved mathematical mystery and emerging with buried treasure. But I don’t. At least not on that scale.

What I realized is that I love numbers when their solutions result in actionable knowledge. If I use regression or integration to determine when a condition is at it’s best/worst or simply IS, and that knowledge means that this doohickey should be like ‘this’, or made out of ‘that’, or is ‘something’. I’m not saying that their solution doesn’t MEAN something. It means A LOT, and generations from now, their theorem will effect the way things work that the average person doesn’t even know exist despite depending on them. But when that equation was solved they didn’t then run out and MAKE something. It simply was a completed equation.

I LOVE puzzles, but what I really love are solutions and MAKING things. Not simply making them, but making them better than before. I love research, and part of all science is hypothesis and theory. But I could not live in a world of theory, where solutions aren’t actionable outside the world of more theory.

Learning what we didn’t know.

So on my lunch break today I was reading “Materials Handbook” Fifth Edition by George S. Brady. Not because I would learn something ‘new’ from a 60+ year old book. But because it is interesting to see what we have learned since then. I find it inspiring to see not only how much we have learned in a man’s lifetime (not mine, yet) but also how much scientists of the past could determine with so few instruments. In addition to that I find the examples of science we have disproved or improved gives insight into what science we currently believe that yet has room for improvement.

As somewhat of a side note, while reading this horribly outdated book vintage masterpiece I was reminded of a professor who would give no credit to any work that used Wikipedia as a resource.  He regularly told us that we had to go to the library for the information because not everything is on the internet.  And while in my given field of Material Science it’s true (I could name hundreds of subjects that aren’t even a foot note in Wikipedia), that doesn’t mean that user supplied facts are any less true than a book published 20 years ago. And yes most science books currently in use were first composed at least 20 years ago, and although each edition contains updates, the whole of the work stays very much the same in most cases.  I would bet that books (whether electronic or print) will always be the best way to present mass amounts of information (200-600+pages), but they are definitely no longer the only source of information. I think that open source information can be just as right or wrong as published information.

What I think the real lesson is that regardless of the source question the facts and more importantly the conclusions.  But don’t just ask “Is this correct”.  Ask “Why is this correct or incorrect? And how can I prove or disprove their conclusion”  Don’t question authority/science/politics/etc. for the sake of not being a lemming.  Questions it in order to find the TRUTH.

Don’t be a Hater, be a Creator.