Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for July 7th, 2018

The educated eyeball

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In the late 1940s, I read an article called “Soaring Over the Open Ocean” by an oceanographer named [Alfred H.] Woodcock. It really stuck in my mind because this scientist had been doing serious oceanographic work in the North Atlantic and began, as a hobby, watching various birds soaring over the water. But instead of just looking at the birds and thinking, How pretty, he began noting how they soared. Sometimes they soared in circles, sometimes in straight lines parallel to the wind, sometimes in straight lines perpendicular to the wind—and sometimes they couldn’t soar at all.

So he thought about it and began measuring the temperature difference between the air and water as well as the wind speed each time he saw a bird soaring a particular way. Then he plotted these variables on a scatter diagram and found that each type of soaring was always associated with a particular combination of wind speed and temperature difference. And it became evident that these different soaring techniques were illuminating the flow patterns of the convective cells in the atmosphere…What was going on in the lab in dimensions of millimeters was exactly analogous to what was going on in the atmosphere on a scale of kilometers. I thought this was a wonderful research project. Woodcock didn’t need a cyclotron or a huge radar. He just used some educated eyeballs, some insight, and he used birds as free sensors.

Paul MacCready, to Kenneth A. Brown in Inventors at Work

Written by nevalalee

July 7, 2018 at 7:30 am

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