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Archive for the ‘Engineering’ Category

The Myth—and Psychology—of the Better Bat

Lloyd Smith spends a lot of time pondering the performance of bats and balls—aluminum, wood, baseballs, softballs. It’s his job, and he does it well enough that his Sports Science Laboratory is the official bat testing facility for the NCAA.

But while the WSU associate professor of engineering might use his ball cannons and high speed cameras to facilitate an arms race of ever bouncier balls and more powerful bats, the lab focuses more on uniformity, or to mix a metaphor, a level playing field among the tools of the trade.

Flickr photo courtesty of MelvinSchlubman,

In fact, if you ask him what bat is best, he can’t tell you. That would be a conflict of interest, an implicit endorsement of the people he is supposed to help regulate. Moreover, he says, it just doesn’t matter that much.

It’s a common misconception that there is an enormous difference between bats, he says. By design, the highest-performing softball bat is 10 percent more powerful than a wood bat. The best college bat is 5 percent better.

“The big difference is in player ability,” he says, referring to an on-the-field study showing as much as a 20 percent variation between players.

“When parents come to me and say, ‘Hey, which bat should I buy for my kid,’ I tell them, ‘Go to the weight room and work out. Go play the game. Go work on your skills.’ That’s going to make a lot more difference than spending $300 on the latest and greatest bat.”

Then there are the intangibles that lie outside the realm of measurable physics, like bat comfort. Smith can measure 100 bats and determine the best performer, “but if a player is convinced that this other bat is better, what does that psychology do? What factor does that have?”

That may even have been a factor in the use of illegally corked bats. A study co-authored by Smith in the recent American Journal of Physics found a ball bounced better off a solid wood bat than one hollowed out and filled with a material like cork.

It could be that the lighter corked bat improves a player’s ability to turn on the ball, and a player like Sammy Sosa—caught with a corked bat in 2003—was aiming to improve his batting average, not power. Or it could go back to that intangible psychological factor: He thought the bat worked better, and thinking made it so.

“Suddenly superstition does have a reality,” says Smith, “but we can’t really measure that here, so we stick with the science part.”

To learn more, see “The Physics of Cheating in Baseball” at



Quite Simply, The World’s Most Energy Efficient Office Building

Try as you might to save energy at home—wear sweaters, hit the lights on the way out of the room—and you can still see vast amounts of energy going to waste at work. Empty rooms have lights on. Large, nearly empty spaces have the heat cranking. It turns out that buildings take up the bulk of our energy use.

The environmental sustainability goals of the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, rating system have been taking a crack at this problem in recent years. WSU’s own Compton Union Building was refurbished with the guidelines in mind, earning a silver rating by saving energy and water and recycling construction waste, among other things. WSU Vancouver’s undergraduate classroom building went one better, earning a gold certification from the U.S. Green Building Council.

Rendering courtesy of Miller Hull.

But such efforts pale in comparison to the Cascadia Center for Sustainable Design and Construction, a six-story office building slated for East Madison Street on Seattle’s Capitol Hill. All the building’s energy demands will be handled on the site. All the building’s water will come from rainfall. Where other green buildings compete over certifications of silver, gold and platinum, this will simply be the most energy-efficient office building in the world.

Participants in the project—the Bullitt Foundation, PAE Consulting Engineers, and the Miller Hull Partnership—spoke about the effort earlier this week in a seminar put on by WSU’s Center for Environmental Research, Education and Outreach, or CEREO. A look at just some of the steps in the effort shows it is indeed possible to make such a dramatically sustainable building. It also shows how hard it can be.

A typical building uses more than 70,000 British thermal units of energy per square foot a year. This translates to an “energy use intensity” of about 70. A LEED platinum building cuts that by more than half, to 32. The Cascadia Center cuts that in half again, to 16. Craig Curtis, a Miller Hull partner and lead designer for the architecture team, said this is probably the lowest of any office building in the state.

All the building’s electrical needs will come from solar panels. To get the most surface area, and therefore the most energy from Seattle’s intermittent sunshine, the architects extended the roof outside the property line and ran panels down much of the building facade.

The roof’s rainwater will be filtered and disinfected for drinking and showers. Water from the low-flush toilets, as well as the solid stuff, will be composted and used to fertilize and water plants.

Laptops, which use less energy, will replace desktop computers. In some cases, computing will be done through common servers.

Tenants will include the building’s owner, the Bullitt Foundation, which focuses on environmental issues in the Northwest. The foundation, said Amy Solomon, a program officer, decided to develop the building to create a “replicable prototype” and inspire more environmental policies, including building codes.

Other tenants will need to agree to limit their energy use, although heavier energy users may be able to take advantage of an inter-office “cap and trade” system. Workers will need to expand their comfort zones, tolerating a few degrees warmer in summer—there will be no air conditioning—and a few degrees cooler in winter. The only on-site parking will be for a shared electric car. And with an elevator using as much as 4 percent of the building’s energy, tenants will be encouraged to use a glassed-in stairway with views of downtown Seattle and Puget Sound.

Miller Hull has several charts and images of the building here.

The firm is also featured in the spring issue of Washington State Magazine.

Improving computers via carbon nanotubes

Story and video by Becky Philips for WSU Today

Cars, computers, cell phones, DVDs, and life-saving medical technology — our modern world thrives on the power of electronics and integrated circuits. Today, the microprocessor — the workhorse behind most of these devices — is set to undergo an extreme makeover that promises to push the possibilities even further.

Josè Delgado-Frias, professor in the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and Centennial Boeing Chair in Computer Engineering, is working to merge the fields of digital technology and nanotechnology — the field of study which develops materials and devices smaller than 100 nanometers in size.

Using carbon nanotubes and FinFETS—tiny electronic gates used in digital components—Dr. Delgado-Frias’ research stands to advance the world of electronics by producing computers and other digital devices with faster speed, reduced size, improved reliability, and wide-ranging adaptability.

CMOS vs. nanocircuits
Contemporary integrated circuits and microprocessors are based almost entirely on a technology known as CMOS. The problem with CMOS is that it allows leakage of electrical current along system pathways, ultimately wasting most of their power. With nanoelectronics, that leakage can be blocked — resulting in a sharp drop in power consumption along with decreased heat production.

The technology can also make computers run faster. In theory, FinFETS could increase processor speed by a magnitude of 10. Carbon nanotube-based microprocessors are projected to run up to 1,000 times faster.


The Optics Man of Cairo

Geologist and science scribe Kirsten Peters regularly writes on the art and science of discovery for her Rock Doc column, syndicated in newspapers across the country and available at Her latest column, a service of the College of Sciences at Washington State University, marvels at the man widely considered the Father of the Scientific Method.

Sometimes it pays to spend ten years in detention. Not that a person would ever want that to happen, but if it did – could you put the time to good use?

That’s a question I’ve asked myself. I’ve also asked my students exactly the same thing. The value of a good high school or college education, I say to them, is that it should give you the tools to use time like that well. What would you do with it?

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

One thousand years ago an Arab man named Ibn al-Haytham found himself under house arrest in Cairo. That far back ago in time, we don’t know much of the specifics of Ibn al-Haytham’s life. But we do know he was a towering giant of an intellectual in his day.

If you give a thinking person ten years to think, don’t be surprised if there are some powerful results in the end. In Ibn al-Haytham’s case, a good argument can be made that the ten-year gap in his life was quickly followed by the release of his major book on optics. That book was pivotal to our lives today, because optics was hardly the only issue it addressed.

In the ancient world – more than 1,000 years before Ibn al-Haytham’s own life – Greek philosophers had two main theories of vision. One theory (advanced by Ptolemy and Euclid) was that “vision rays” left the eye and went out to objects around us in the world. The other was put forward by Aristotle. The great philosopher had argued a “form” of some sort comes from an object in the world around you and enters your eye so you can see it.

Ibn al-Haytham pointed out, first, that not all the ancient Greek authorities could be right, since they followed two contradictory ideas on the subject. Then he noted that we don’t have vision unless there is light around us: either light from the object we are seeing (like a lamp) or light rays from reflected light (like sunlight in the day). So light, first, is what we need to understand in order to better understand vision.

Using only logic like this and a few simple experimental materials – a pinhole in a curtain or a hollow straight tube – Ibn al-Haytham went on to deduce a great deal about modern optics. Light rays travel in straight lines. Light on flat mirrors is reflected in one set of ways, and on curved mirrors in others.  Light is refracted (bent) when it moves from air to water.

Most importantly of all, Ibn al Haytham did all this good work using experiments and observations, writing out for his readers what they could do to show themselves the same evidence he had seen and reach the same conclusions.

That’s not bad for 10 years of work under nice conditions. For 10 years in detention, it’s really a remarkable feat.

Two hundred years passed after the death of the Arab scholar before a Christian monk took up a translated volume of the work and saw its value. Roger Bacon was our hero’s name. He was not Francis Bacon – there are two Bacons rattling around in history. Roger Bacon repeated some of Ibn al-Haytham’s experiments – but he also endorsed for the Christian tradition this new method of gaining new knowledge about the natural world. Experiments and testing of physical facts, Bacon argued, were the most productive ways to learn about the physical world around us. Others around Bacon were soon on board with the program, and Medieval Europe began to have at least an inkling of the modern, scientific method.

The reason science and engineering have been able to progress so much in our lifetimes is that the method of running experiments and testing results is enormously successful.  But in the old world, it was far from clear that this approach would lead to the most sound results.

We owe Ibn al-Haytham and Roger Bacon a lot, not just for their good work on optics, but for recognizing the power of the scientific method that has given us so much today.