Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The educated eyeball

with 3 comments

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

3 Responses

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  1. I really enjoyed this! How interesting, and then would you recommend “Inventors at Work?”


    July 8, 2018 at 9:02 am

  2. That reminds me of the kind of science that was being done during the early modern revolutionary era. There was a revolution of the mind that preceded the revolution of armed revolt. And it included science.

    Many of the American founders seriously dabbled in scientific experiments and technological invention. It was part of their confidence that they could come to understand the world and even to make the world again, to explore and experiment, to imagine new ways of seeing the world and shape society.

    Of course, it was done with the most basic of materials and methods. Yet they were able to accomplish much.

    Gentlemen Scientists and Revolutionaries
    By Tom Shachtman

    The Invention of Air
    By Steven Johnson

    Benjamin David Steele

    July 8, 2018 at 1:50 pm

  3. @Jeff: Absolutely—it’s a great book. And there are plenty of used copies available online.


    July 8, 2018 at 7:39 pm

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