Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1045:
OF SPORT AND DESIGN

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1045.

Today, lessons in modern design from the sports pages. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

I have many doubts about big-time athletics. Still, the underdog Houston Rockets got my attention with their 1995 NBA championship. I was powerfully drawn to the beauty of experimentation and teamwork -- and of a champion emerging from shadowland.

The latest issue of Mechanical Engineering magazine drives home the point. The Silicon Graphics Computer Company has taken out an eight-page advertisement. It's all about New Zealand's recent victory in the America's Cup races. New Zealand won 39 heats in that competition and lost only one -- that by a mere 15 seconds.

The U.S. had dominated the race for years. A decisive win by bucolic New Zealand was as unthinkable as David slaying Goliath. The gleeful Silicon Graphics ad tells about it. New Zealand went to computer fluid flow analysts at Carnegie-Mellon Institute with a large grant. The experts spent five years setting up means for testing boats, not in the water, but in computer simulations.

Computer modeling of fluid flow is elusive and difficult. The Carnegie engineers used the latest research, but they still could only come close to real performance.

So they set up a team right at dockside in San Diego -- twenty feet from a workshop. Using Silicon Graphics computers, they created a ritual of rapid trial and error.

Analysts would do maybe 200 designs a night -- design a boat, sail it in their electronic ocean, make another change, sail it again. Next day, the shop people would change one of two real boats and run it against the previous boat in the real ocean. What once took years now got done in hours. The team tested 10,000 such designs, gaining a few seconds now and then on the course.

A 1990 article on yacht design in the Annual Review of Fluid Mechanics tells about another humiliation for the U.S. team -- the 1983 victory of the Australian entry. Same story: the Australians leap-frogged us with a radical new hull design based on sophisticated computer-aided design methods.

The same ingredients won the NBA championship for Houston when no one thought it possible. The Rockets replaced brute individualism with intelligence, with trial and error, and with the most cooperative spirit of any team in the league.

So we learn from the sports pages -- not just in our newspapers, but in our technical journals as well. That same issue of Mechanical Engineering has another article on the computer design of Formula One race cars. Industry and the sports arena have much to gain from one another -- lessons in cooperation, in rapid trial and error, and in the terrible beauty of being the best.

I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Dietz, D., Modeling Fluid-Structure Interactions: Virtual Tests Help Kiwis Win America's Cup. Mechanical Engineering, Vol. 117, No. 7, July 1995, p. 18. (See also the Silicon Graphics Computer Systems advertisement on pp. 49-56.)

Larsson, L., Scientific Methods in Yacht Design. Annual Review of Fluid Mechanics, Vol. 22, 1990, pp. 349-385.

I am grateful to computational fluid dynamicist Ralph Metcalfe, UH Mechanical Engineering Department, for his counsel.

As for the Houston Rockets, they, of course, won the NBA championship in 1994 as well as in 1995. But in 1994 they looked like contenders all year long. In 1995 they barely made it into the playoffs after a year of shifting personel and changes in tactics.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

Previous Episode | Search Episodes | Index | Home | Next Episode