Robot Child

© Owen Pietrokowsky and Materials Means: Science and Technology Blog, 2016.
Email Owen at opietro@ yahoo dot com


We built a robot child,
a simple bell of foam and air,
and on that bell
we hung a skirt to swing
round her center,
rolling here   to   there  and   there.

And in that bell
we put a spine to spin
our child without a care.
And on her circle spine
we hung a shirt that chimed:
SkepticStand Back—
Yes She Can!

Spin robot spin
Hoop a dream if you dare.
Spin robot spin
Hoop your hopes high midair!

Spin 1past the size of dreaming——
Hoop away your cares.
Hoop round till morning
dawns the science that you bear.

We built a robot child
a simple bell that danced.
Motion capture was the plan,
motion made our plane did stay—
all turns held tight all ropes held fast
when our robot love’s labor cast.

Note 1: Antony and Cleopatra


Metallic Glass Lab


Pol Duwez, Caltech Professor of Materials Science, b.1907-1984



Beckman Institute, Caltech,  Home of the Materials and Process Simulation Center


© Owen Pietrokowsky and Materials Means: Science and Technology Blog, 2014.
Email Owen at opietro@ yahoo dot com

After the office visit with Professor Duwez were the labs: lab after lab of metals and metal-making machines. There were tall cylindrical tanks of compressed gases standing guard like sentries and glass cabinets full of crystal-structure models. There were stately electron microscopes, balances, strain gauges, electric-arc furnaces, diffractometers, vacuum chambers, micro-hardness testers, powder blenders, fatigue testers, and vacuum furnaces.

On desks, tables, and lab benches lay metals of nearly every imaginable shape: ingots, sheets, rods, pellets, wires, bars and slugs. These alloys began as heterogeneous powders varying in glint, size and granularity. After mixing, blending and melting in furnaces they became uniform solids. What began as pharmacopoeia ended as metallica. Room after room of metallica. And more: an atmosphere, a tangible aura of modern and mythic melded together.

It seemed to me as if Midas himself had preceded me in all the brilliance of his metallic manifestations. Midas! The legendary king whose gilded touch turned base matter to gold. Brass touched with tin became bronze; iron alloyed with carbon engendered steel. Here in these labs his touch was not just fabled Midian gold; it was silver, copper, zinc, tin and titanium. It was brittleness, hardness, stress-intensity, and tensile strength. Metals had a range and quality in their perfections and faults that mirrored the human heart.


The Alchemist’s Iron


© Owen Pietrokowsky and Materials Means: Science and Technology Blog, 2014.
Email Owen at opietro@ yahoo dot com

(Inspired by an LBL thesis on soldering)

To resourceful experimentalists, engineers, and hobbyists it’s a familiar ritual: clear space in a cramped laboratory, move a stool up to a makeshift workbench — appropriate any available dining room space for hardware assembly.

Next, arrange your tools. Unroll a schematic. Plug in a soldering iron, and clip wire from a spool of solder.

For most electronic mavens these steps are second nature. Holding a piece of solder in your left hand and your iron in your right, dab and whet the iron. In short order, a wisp of evaporated resin rises when cold solder contacts a hot iron.

Now you’re ready. Position a circuit board just right, and place your iron on a chip lead for a few seconds while feeding wire to that spot. Metallurgical alchemy transforms a dull malleable solid into silvery liquidus bead. Capillary action quickly pulls liquid solder simultaneously up a device lead and down into its board pad. Done. A chip lead is now mechanically and electrically joined to its board. The average electronics/computer hardware project consists of scores and even hundreds of these ritual binding acts. Under every piece of circuitry is the deft hand of metallurgical magic.




Blue Morpho Butterfly Wing (reflected light)
Credit: F. Nijhout, Duke University

© Owen Pietrokowsky and Materials Means: Science and Technology Blog, 2013.
Email Owen at opietro@ yahoo dot com

A local engineer suffering from superomniferrophobia recently jettisoned all his digital belongings and took a vow of digital silence. He relinquished his cell phone, GPS navigator, laptop, iPhone, stereo, and video camera, along with all of his other digital possessions.

“Please turn off your cell phones for this announcement” he said to friends and colleagues the day before he left his job in Silicon Valley and moved out of the area. “I won’t be in touch. I won’t be emailing, texting, twittering, writing, calling, or being in touch in any way” he announced to assembled co-workers at his going away party.

“I won’t be sending greeting cards, postcards, leaving voice mails, faxing, touch-tone dialing, or contacting my friends by smart versions of any of my digital artifacts. I no longer have a GPS navigator. I don’t want to know where I am, where I’m going, where I’ve been, what I’ve done.”

His remarks were met with general disbelief and an overpowering digital and analog silence. “I’ve been diagnosed with superomniferrophobia, and I need to revise my lifestyle and my relationship to ferromagnetic objects of all kinds. I have to rethink my relationship to the Periodic Table. I have to reconsider my genetic makeup and my personal genome.”

“I know in my blood that this is the right thing to do. In fact, I’ve had my blood analyzed, and doctors tell me I have excessive hemoglobin in my arteries. I need to cut down on my intake of iron, literally and digitally. I won’t be able to locate myself in geographical or social space for quite some time.”

“The good news, however, is that I will still be a member-in-good-standing of the space-time continuum. I will still be following Newtonian laws and Einstein’s theory of relativity. You can all be assured of that.” A general sigh of relief rippled through the crowd. “I will miss my friends” he continued. “I appreciate the support you have given me in my career and role as a ferro-evangalist and proponent of free market ferrophilia. I hope you will continue to think of me and support me in spirit as I enter a new phase of my life.”

“I will also miss my magnetic poetry on my refrigerator. This was one of the harder things to give up. Some things will be an inconvenience not to have around, but not having magnetic poetry around in my life and daily routine will be extremely difficult.”

“It’s in my blood too. Words and magnets and magnetism. They go so well together. Can you have one without the other, really? It’s what keeps us together, strings together meaning in our lives, let’s us parse our language and daily reality. I know you will want to send me care packages of food and magnets and wish me a fond goodbye on the company refrigerator. But know that I have asked the same of my family and close relatives. Don’t think of me when you open that frig door and parse the good times, the long lines, one liners, couplets, stanzas, free verse improvised from vegetable bin to freezer. Magnets aren’t forever. Please remember. Magnets aren’t the last word.”


A Pilot’s Power Tools


© Owen Pietrokowsky and Materials Means: Science and Technology Blog, 2013.
Email Owen at opietro@ yahoo dot com

My girlfriend lives in a lovely cottage in Fairfax, California, and her landlord and his wife live on a large house on the same property. I met her landlord for the first time recently as he was busily working away on a makeshift workbench, tools in hand.

We walked over to his driveway and casually greeted him. P. is a small, white-bearded, retired English airline pilot. He and his wife collect antiques, some of which they store under Marti’s cottage.

That day P. was matching wood tiles for a long-term deck renovation project. I noticed that his ample garage has a large and orderly collection of hand and power tools. I’ve never been very handy myself, and Marti filled me in on his deck building.

P. has been laboring quite a while, and he is committed to doing it right. I guess pilots don’t have much leeway to use hand tools or be handy around a modern commercial airline cockpit. They strap in, push switches, adjust knobs, check dials, talk to air traffic controllers. That’s their job pretty much. No time to saw, hammer, trim, shave, or otherwise work wood or other materials in the cockpit. And definitely no in-flight deck making over the Pacific.

P. stood over a gray wood tile or two as we talked away. I could see over his fence into a beautiful garden and a backyard deck a long way from completion. There were big white bags of gardening mulch or compost on the deck, some steel rods, and more tools too.

My father was the handy person in the family way back when, but our garage was hardly neat and tidy. Garage organizational skills were not part of his repertoire, although he built some impressive shelving for legal-sized boxes and other belongings when I was in high school. Instead, he was mainly a gardener, not a builder, though he was a good draftsman too and could build some pretty substantial things at his brother’s machine shop.

I never picked up handy skills from him other than using screwdrivers and some hammering and sawing once in a great while. He was very concerned that I would cut or injure myself with some of his tools. He was probably right.

What I identified with most as I watched P. for a few minutes was his interest in matching the panel wood grain. My father was a materials scientist, and I like to look at artistic patterns and latticework through the lens of scientific symmetry. I can admire the mathematical and aesthetic impulse to match wood grains for an outdoor deck.

Since I’m not handy with tools, however, I considered talking shop about symmetry patterns, tessellating tiles, and latticework, just some mathematical small talk that I got from my father. I figured I might offer P. some pointers from a theoretical perspective, nothing great, nothing earthshaking, just a few insights from applied science. Some might call it PowerPoint for the mind.

But it was a nice day and I thought better of it. I just met the guy, after all. Maybe it was too much too soon. Materials science is something you don’t share casually with just any Shmoe on the street. There are some things that guys shouldn’t disclose too soon.