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mardi 18 novembre 2003

From the door frames to the computer game boxes, the shelves and tables to biscuit packets, the heaps of magazines to CD cases, my flat is full of straight lines, squares, ovals and rectangles. Just like your home.
These shapes have never troubled my eye.
I find them generally pleasing, part of the way objects fit together into the rooms, a harmonious contrast to the irregular curves of other furnishings, machines and containers, the rounded corners of a mirror and the mathematically complex forms of the ink-jet printer, lamps and the beds.
Never has it occurred to me since the measuring, often down to the nearest millimeter, that preceded the refurbishing of my small home, that the use of the space available is anything short of optimal.

scispunkManmade rectangles and hard lines dominate the increasingly dire warnings the government has imposed on cigarettes, reminding us what fools we smokers are as it rakes in the constantly rising taxes on the cancer sticks.
'Fumer tue' was direct enough, but the fear offensive now targets our sex and family lives too, as the latest messages show. Of course the form, the stark heavy font and the thick black border, recall death notices.
In essence, that's what these messages are.
They work. Where restaurants allow smoking, as most still do, fewer people thoughtlessly leave the packet in sight, not when eating, not when 'Smoking kills' reminds you that you're about to follow good healthy food with a complex blend of poisons to accompany the coffee, and not with a child's eyes moving from the message back to your faces with the 'Why?' question as evident as it can go unsaid.

I'm not the only one, I've observed, often to hide the packet in my pocket now, think a bit each time I light up.
sciletdownThe shape of these warnings we take totally for granted, their funereal symbolism scarcely subliminal, just a part of the cultural baggage making up our 'Ways of Seeing' (in "Notes on 'The Gaze'", Daniel Chandler makes interesting comment on John Berger's influential 1972 book).

Now, what of nature? What of the shapes, form and design of what's left of the natural world through our oblong city windows? The trees, the dogs, the bees and the birds.
At the level of most objects we can see without a microscope, nature abhors a straight line as much as it does a vacuum.
Our rectangles, right angles, cubes and Roman roads may strike us as harmonious, part of a natural order established by humankind, but just how natural are they really?
And is our way of optimizing the use of space -- the fitting together of the bits in my flat -- of necessity the best, the most rational, the path of least resistance, the most aesthetic?

Adrian Bejan, professor of mechanical engineering at Duke University in North Carolina, published 'Shape and Structure from Engineering to Nature' (Cambridge University Press) in 2000. Nobody has reviewed it at Amazon UK yet, and there's only one comment on the US webstore site. Five stars from Satish, who speaks of a "revolutionary book", "a must read for every engineer or scientist or any creative artist." The Romanian-born Bejan has given us 'constructal theory'.

Who cares? So what?

So, we have a new way of seeing, a new way of understanding, and most importantly in its far-reaching implications, a new theory of design already in the process of changing the shapes, efficiency and optimization of the myriad artefacts that are part of our daily lives, from a huge jumbo jet to the refrigeration system in your local store.
This month's 'Science et Vie' (Fr. website) devotes its cover, editorial and a riveting, worldview-changing 20-page dossier to Bejan's theory and the impact it has already had in the scientific and engineering communities, particularly in the United States, France and, it would seem, Romania.

Bejan's "equations prove it: nature creates forms that are ... perfect. And mankind can henceforth strive for such perfection. Devised by an American thermodynamics specialist of worldwide renown, a completely novel theory gives us the key to the conception of ideal objects, machines, habitations, networks... Until now known only to a few initiates, 'constructal theory' promises to revolutionize the career of engineering. And also to alter our outlook on the world," the magazine reports.
From the very shape and functioning of our lungs or those of the tube serving as "stem" of a bird's feather, to the complex patterns of the weather, the natural world we live in has never been anything other than the optimization of form, process and engineering efficiency. Nature distributes imperfection to the most perfect possible end.

Modestly, Bejan tells 'Science et Vie' that he finds it a "mystery" why nobody came up with his ideas earlier.

"This theory uses equations more than 150 years old and generally doesn't call for heavy-duty calculations," I translate as best I can from the French. "It's particularly astonishing since the 19th century was still under the influence of the intuitions of Leibniz, Maupertuis, Euler and Lagrange, for whom of all possible processes, the only one that really occurred was that requiring the least cost. This was a grand vision, integrating optimized process in a way very close to the constructal approach. But instead of that, modern physics embarked on a study of the microscopic, leaving the macroscopic world we live in to one side."


The dossier includes interviews with and comments from a range of scientists and engineers in different countries, but notably France. They are pursuing the study and applications of Bejan's reportedly "simple" but comprehensive theory with enthusiasm.
While mathematicians are among those to describe his equations as simple, even evident once grasped, they're quite beyond my reach. But not, apparently, that of lay readers with greater mathematical skills turned on to his work and writing.
Scientists tell the magazine that the domains where Bejan's discoveries will have a direct impact on our world and the objects we make are almost beyond count. The theory "promises to rethink the structure of aircraft, the distribution of energy flows, to envisage new architectural structures making optimal use of the mechanical forces involved, to conceive of new buildings facilitating the movements of people, to structure the Internet and its information flows, to optimize money circulation networks and those for consumer goods, to study the form of genes, even to refine military strategies."
Initially sceptical, geophysicist Heitor Reis of Portugal's Evora University, explains that he was "very surprised by the results" of bringing Bejan's theory to bear on the study of heat transfer and other patterns in the atmosphere, and by its potential contribution to an understanding of meteorological processes.
Jocelyn Bonjour, an engineer at the National Conservatory of Arts and Crafts in the French capital, describes constructal theory as "a new state of mind, which has already changed my whole outlook on my job." Practically, he adds, he used structural theory for the optimal design of a device which absorbs polluting gases in the environment which contribute to the greenhouse effect and global warming.
In revealing a key to the "intelligence of nature" itself, Bejan's work also has implications for biology and nanotechnology, the magazine reports.
And next time I set fire to a cigarette, I'll know that Adrian Bejan's sets of equations shed light on why the smoke so often inconveniently threatens to drift in the direction most calculated to annoy others in the vicinity.

For English-speakers interested in pursuing this, Bejan has 'Constructal Theory' pages on Duke University's webwork.
At the Massachussetts Institute of Technology, where the man studied through to his Ph. D, a brief Adrian Bejan lecture page sums up his findings:

"Optimal distribution of imperfection is the principle that generates form. The system is destined to remain imperfect. The system works best when its imperfection (its internal flow resistances) is spread around, so that more and more of the internal points are stressed as much as the hardest working points. One good form leads to the next, as the constructal principle demands: objective served better while under the grip of global and local constrains. There is a time arrow to all these forms, and it points toward the better."


Also submitted to 'Blogcritics' (blogrolled).

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