The Wind rises for the engineers

July 15, 2014

The latest (and probably last) creation of Miyazaki is about the (fictionalized) life of the plane designer Jiro Horikoshi, the creator of the Mitsubishi A6M Zero, which gave nightmare to many US pilots during WWII. It was a huge success in Japan.

I will be honest from the beginning: this is not my favourite Miyazaki: the magics does not work and I do not know exactly why: perhaps the character of the hero is not enough worked out, a bit too dull. Or the tragic love story, the purpose of which is not clear; he wanted perhaps to show that engineers have an heart in addition to a brain.

Yet, it is Miyazaki and the film is still a masterpiece. I have three main elements that attracted my attention and where I thought “yes, this is like that!”.

  • first, the dreams as a child: which aerospace engineer did not have dreams of sky or space when he was a child? Which enginerr did not imagine the perfect machine in his daydreams. You dream, you study, you take the low level jobs in an aerospace company and you climb the ladder. 
  • Second, the relation with the hardware. There are two beautiul scenes (for an engineer): On his first day at Mitsubishi when he asks whether he can see the assembly of the plane in the workshop; the foreman is happy to see that at least one guy from the design office is interested in the hardware. And the second scene where the design team receives a sample of the new ultra-light aluminium alloy (I wonder if it is the 7075 developed Sumitomo Metal). and they are all bewildered by this apparently mundane rod of metal.
  • And to finish, the complex relations between the dreams of an engineer and the hard reality of a war. It is of course controversial: we do not know exactly what really happened in the mind of Horikoshi. He is depicted in the film as rather little concerned by the  military aspect of his job.


All in all, I would recommend the film if you are engineer, especially to watch the lost art of the slide-rule.  

*Saving private Feynman… Or not*

July 14, 2014

After years of worshipping, the backfire is unleashed on Richard Feynman, although I don’t think he cares much now (both for the worship and the backfire).

I am twice bewildered: first by this sudden worship and second by this sudden backfire, everything happening after his death.

I was wondering why we need rockstars in science. I can understand in politics, music, sport, art: these are areas of passion. Science is the area of rationality and should not be the prey of the vile motions of our heart. Well, it is not so sure and scientists play a double game that Niietzschewould explain by the dichotomy between their Dionysian and Apollonian natures. I explain:

Science is rational: yoiu need to remove every emotion, passion to do a scientific work; your mind has to work like a computer to write a scientific paper: inputs, logical method, outputs. A cold blooded work. Any other method is sure to fail. This is the ideal way.

The problem is that, except for some individuals, our mind does not like to work like that. Yes, scientists are also human beings. They need to be driven by passion, competition, pride, ambition. This emotional part is even of utter importance if you want to survive all the traps of the scientific communities and of Nature itself. It is not easy to confront the mysteries of our environment. You can spend a lot of time in great dispair because you are not able to unlock some problems (and I don’t talk about fundamental work liek solving the quantum gravity issue but far more mundane issues like bugs on your latest model of electrical arcs). Your motivation is thus here to keep your momentum in these difficult conditions.

One way to keep or to give this motivation is to find inspiring sources, like great scientists or engineers. And the gap is quickly crossed to tranform a reference in rockstar. This is where we have to be careful: we all have dark sides. We can judge the scientific work but it is difficult to take a whole mind as model. Von Braun, Oppenheimer have, techincally speaking, provided a wonderful work. Their goals are far from being morally acceptable. 

Therefore, it is important to have references but rockstars have to stay on stage playing bass. 



Reliability of high level scientific softwares

July 14, 2014

Yes, Mathematica and your new release with more than 700 new functions, I am hinting at you. I am wondering how programs so advance as you can be reliable.
Other softwares are in the same case, but S. Wolfram is rather explicit in his blog about making Mathematica the second, more advanced brain, of every scientist (for a small transfer of money).

The question that I have when I use this kind of software is the following:

How am I a sure that the software gives the right answer to my question?


This question has two parts:

  • first, how does Wolfram insures that the program has no bug? It is a closed proprietary system. Of course, you have a feedback system, but still, you need the bug to be obvious to detect it. When you do science, you are in quicksands: you are sure of nothing and you need some stable ground to progress.
  • second, these codes offer more and more advanced functions: how can I be sure that I use the function in the proper way. The problem is that for a same function, the code can branch on different algorithms depending on the range of your parameters and it is not always obvious to understand the limitations of each algorithm. Of course, you can call the hotline, you can follow trainings but it costs money, added to the initital cost of the license.

In my opinion, this kind of general purpose software should be kept for basic general computing; a kind of enhanced pocket calculator. As soon as you need to do more complex things, you need anyway to understand what happens under the hoot; so you have to use an open code, so that you can check if everything goes right during the simulation.

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