I spent last weekend in Washington, DC doing my part to support science as a participant in April 22’s March for Science. I’ve considered myself a big fan of science, ever since I made my first vinegar and baking powder volcano, so it was appropriate that I go along to show my support.
According to organizers, the idea behind the march (or actually the marches, as satellite marches were held in more than 600 locations around the world) was to “demonstrate support for science and the fundamental role it plays in serving and improving society through informed policy”. Other goals were to “hold our leaders in society and science accountable to the highest standards of honesty, integrity and fairness”, and to “work to bring science and the benefits of scientific research to those who need it most”.
What this seemed to mean in practice was a protest centered on four major themes:
- To express support for the benefits (advancements in the areas of medicine, communications, transportation, electronics, materials, food production, weather forecasting) that science in general has brought to modern society.
- To protest against threatened government cuts to publically funded scientific research. Are you aware of how many products that we take for granted today arose from government funded projects? NASA alone is responsible for many of those – a couple of those closest to my heart, for obvious reasons, are NASTRAN (Structural Analysis Software) and OpenStack (the open source cloud platform that CloudCalc happens to run on).
- To protest the politicization of scientifically accepted facts, such as climate change and the effectiveness of vaccinations. For example, just a few days prior to the march, the Board of Education of my home state was still debating the question of how to balance the teaching of evolution and creationism/intelligent design in the state schools.
- To advocate for continued protection of the environment.
I consider myself, as an engineer, to be a scientist. When I first started college, my original intention was to major in physics – but after sitting through a few lectures where I was asked to consider an “infinite plane of massless magnetic monopoles”, I decided to switch to something more tangible. To me, engineering was simply the more practical application of scientific principles. Whereas I previously passed time in physics class resolving static forces or integrating dynamic equations of motion, today I do basically the same thing when analyzing a structure for dead/live load (statics) or earthquake (dynamic).
But I am still an engineer first, so even on a weekend dedicated to pure science, I had to get my engineering fix. The day before the march, I visited the National Building Museum. You may be familiar with many of DC’s museums (the various Smithsonians, the Hirschhorn, the Spy Museum…) but are you aware that in 1980 Congress created a museum of “architecture, design, engineering, construction, and urban planning”? The National Building Museum is housed in an absolutely spectacular old building — the original site of the Pension Bureau for veterans of the Civil War. As if the building itself weren’t enough reason to visit, it also holds several interesting exhibits – especially if you have any young children that you might like to introduce to the joys of engineering. And finally, don’t leave without visiting the gift shop, which has won more than its share of “Best Museum Store” awards.
And then, there is what is probably the best-known structure in DC. On Saturday, the pre-march activities provided up-close access to the Washington Monument, At a height of 555 feet, this structure has a number of claims to fame – the world’s tallest monumental column, the world’s tallest stone structure, and even, for a very brief time, the world’s tallest structure. Since construction began in 1848, it has survived quite a number of crises: environmental (a magnitude 5.8 earthquake and Hurricane Irene, both hitting in 2011), and, fitting for Washington, DC, budgetary (construction was halted from 1854 through 1877 due to lack of funds) and political (during the 1850s, responsibility for the project was taken over by the “Know-Nothings”, an anti-immigration, anti-Catholic political party). The latter led to a political standoff which resulted in the completion of only 4 feet of construction over the course of the next several years).
The Washington Monument also had to overcome engineering challenges. In 1876, when the monument had already reached a height of 175 feet, chief engineer Thomas Lincoln Casey determined that the foundation would be inadequate to support the weight of the final structure. This meant that the earth below the foundation had to be dug up – while the monument was in place — and replaced with concrete!
Anyway, back to the March for Science…The event itself was fun, an opportunity to celebrate science, democracy, and the First Amendment right to Freedom of Speech. 40,000 scientists (and supporters of science) braved cold and rainy weather, listening to speakers, touting clever signs, and voicing their support for their favorite branch of science or for “nerds” in general. It impressed me to see so many like-minded souls out in full force. But one thing did surprise me – the relative absence of representatives from the private sector in the crowd. My impression – and only my impression, not the results of any scientific study – was that nearly all of the attendees were from the non-profit area (government, universities, research organizations, etc.). Doesn’t the private sector realize how they benefit from government spending on science?
And where were the engineers? If they were there, I didn’t see them. Maybe other engineers don’t feel strong kinship to scientists. Or maybe we are waiting to get our own march together? Maybe it is about time that we find our own cause. Maybe it is time to alert our leaders, and the public, about the dire need to upgrade the near failing state of our national infrastructure (D+ on the 2017 ASCE Infrastructure Report Card)?
There’s an idea…the Engineer’s March on Washington to advocate for renovation of our nation’s infrastructure. Somebody want to organize it? Pick a warm, sunny day, and I’ll be there.
Do you want to acknowledge your debt to science? Maybe you might want to explore some of the types of technologies that were originally developed under federally-funded scientific research programs -– like structural analysis software…or products delivered over the cloud …or both! Celebrate science by using CloudCalc — the collaborative, scalable, cloud-based structural engineering software. www.cloudcalc.com – Structural Analysis in the Cloud.
By Tom Van Laan
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