Friday, August 21, 2015

Anecdote 5: Becoming an experimentalist, and the Force-o-Matic

As an undergrad, I was a mechanical engineering major doing an engineering physics program from the engineering side.  When I was a sophomore, my lab partner in the engineering fluid mechanics course, Brian, was doing the same program, but from the physics side.  Rather than doing a pre-made lab, we chose to take the opportunity to do an experiment of our own devising.   We had a great plan.  We wanted to compare the drag forces on different shapes of boat hulls.  The course professor got us permission to go to a nearby research campus, where we would be able to take our homemade models and run them in their open water flow channel (like an infinity pool for engineering experiments) for about three hours one afternoon.  

The idea was simple:  The flowing water would tend to push the boat hull downstream due to drag.  We would attach a string to the hull, run the string over a pulley, and hang known masses on the end of the string, until the weight of the masses (transmitted via the string) pulled upstream to balance out the drag force - that way, when we had the right amount of weight on there, the boat hull would sit motionless in the flow channel.  By plotting the weight vs. the flow velocity, we'd be able to infer the dependence of the drag force on the flow speed, and we could compare different hull designs. 

Like many great ideas, this was wonderful right up until we actually tried to implement it in practice.  Because we were sophomores and didn't really have a good feel for the numbers, we hadn't estimated anything and tacitly assumed that our approach would work.  Instead, the drag forces on our beautiful homemade wood hulls were much smaller than we'd envisioned, so much so that just the horizontal component of the force from the sagging string itself was enough to hold the boats in place.  With only a couple of hours at our disposal, we had to face the fact that our whole measurement scheme was not going to work.

What did we do?  With improvisation that would have made McGyver proud, we used a protractor, chewing gum, and the spring from a broken ballpoint pen to create a much "softer" force measurement apparatus, dubbed the Force-o-Matic.  With the gum, we anchored one end of the stretched spring to the "origin" point of the protractor, with the other end attached to a pointer made out of the pen cap, oriented to point vertically relative to the water surface.  With fine thread instead of the heavier string, we connected the boat hull to the tip of the pointer, so that tension in the thread laterally deflected the extended spring by some angle.  We could then later calibrate the force required to produce a certain angular deflection.  We got usable data, an A on the project, and a real introduction, vividly memorable 25 years later, to real experimental work.

1 comment:

gilroy0 said...

>> Like many great ideas, this was wonderful right up until we actually tried to implement it in practice.

Yeah, that's why I tried never to do that. Theory is much more comforting.