The Course of Reason

Engineering: Some Cool Things About It

April 15, 2013

Forty-three years ago some engineers received an urgent assignment: Square a circle, with nothing but duct tape, a hose, a plastic bag, and some paper. Was it some kind of joke? Maybe it had something to do with engineers cutting corners and breaking the rules of math to achieve pragmatic effects. Very funny, mathematicians, very funny! But that wasn’t it at all. They had to square that circle, or else people would die. They were engineers, so they made it work.

As far as I can tell, engineers don’t get nearly the love they deserve from society, and especially from us rationalists. With this post I want to take a moment to show some love to the engineering discipline, and encourage the rest of you to show it more love, too. Science is great, we love science. I love hearing Sagan, deGrasse Tyson, Dawkins, Nye, and Plait wax poetic on the marvels and virtues produced by science, and on the stunning human achievement it represents. And without taking away from anything that they say, I want to take a moment to appreciate the awesomeness that is engineering in its own right.

Jerry Woodfill, at NASA.

Jerry Woodfill at NASA 

I am 27 years old as I write this. I am not an engineer. I am a mathematical logician. Thus far, no one’s life has depended on my mathematical logic abilities. I’m not sure how things would turn out if that ever happened. At 27 years old, Jerry Woodfill was an engineer for NASA on April 13, 1970. That was the day Apollo 13’s oxygen tank exploded. In an auxiliary building, the Mission Evaluation Room, cut off from the Main Show that is the Mission Control Room, Woodfill got the call that he needed to help engineer a solution to a dire situation.

If you’ve seen the film, then you know the Lunar Module had a circular CO2 filtration device that required replacement every 24 hours. *Cough* Every 24 hours with two people on board. However, after the oxygen tanks in the service module blew up, they shut it down and moved all three of the crew members into the Lunar Module. So, they were using up the CO2 filters faster than anticipated. They ran out of circular filters.

If you haven’t seen the film, well, I pity you.

The situation was unique in that there was no possibility of escape. There was no eject, no jump out and swim, no jump out and roll. Either the engineers would solve every problem that presented itself, or the crew would die in some horrible fashion from the extremes of space. Jerry Woodfill’s job was to help Ed Smylie’s ‘Tiger Team’ solve this particular problem.

That’s what engineers have always done. That’s what engineering is. To engineer is to devise a workable solution to a problem based on knowledge, scientific and otherwise. The word comes from the Latin ingeniare (devise, contrive) and ingenium (cleverness). And Jerry Woodfill’s task, however critical, was not abnormal. Your life is always in the hands of an engineer. But don’t be scared. It’s what engineers do. They devise clever solutions to problems, so clever that you can bet your life on them.

 iron rings

Engineers wear iron rings, wrought from the twisted metal of a collapsed bridge, to remind themselves of the tremendous responsibility they have. And when their powers combine, they summon… 

Tony Stark, engineer. 

Jerry and Ed didn’t have enough circular filters for the Lunar Module, but there were some extra square filters from the Command Module’s corresponding CO2 filtration system. See, the stuff that actually does the filtration is lithium hydroxide. Some scientists figured out that lithium hydroxide will react with the CO2 to make lithium carbonate and water, and some engineers hacked it to make a thing that removes CO2 from air. It spits the remaining air out the other side of the filter. So, Jerry and Ed figured, all they needed was some of that lithium hydroxide from the Command Module and a way to move the poisonous air through the lithium hydroxide in the square filters and into the circular Lunar Module filter.

Engineers are really good at this sort of problem solving. They don’t just see the intended uses of an object. They see the potential uses of the object, and the ways to reconfigure that object’s parts for other potential uses.

This sort of creative repurposing is the heart of engineering, and in my mind, one of the most central traits of humanity. The first Homo habilis to (re)purpose a piece of the natural world began a long tradition of human engineering. I put the parentheses around the “re” in “repurpose” because until an engineer touches it, the piece of nature doesn’t have a purpose. The engineer takes a piece of nature, and gives it purpose. For all that we celebrate our achievements of science and reason, we do ourselves a disservice if we forget to celebrate our ability to impose purpose on pieces of the universe.

Artist rendition of Homo habilis.

The first engineer, Homo habilis.  

Back to Jerry and Ed. Things weren’t as simple as I’ve made them seem. See, the Lunar Module filter was supposed to be jammed into this barrel in the middle of the wall, which fed into the Environmental Control System (the thing that regulated the internal cabin environment). It wasn’t just like a little round hole (AKA “a tube”) that you could sort of funnel air into. It was more like a small trashcan that you might have in your bathroom. The square filters from the Command Module were big enough that they couldn’t just fit inside there, but small enough that they couldn’t fully smother it. They really needed Jerry to devise a clever solution.

A labelled view of the Lunar Module, with LiOH canisters. 

You see the circular cover to the lithium hydroxide (LiOH) canisters. Where do you put a square filter? 

This may be just me, but well into college I had no idea what engineering even consisted of. At the beginning of my freshman year my friend told me that he planned to major in engineering, and I laughed at the thought of him shoveling coal into a train. Incredulously, I asked him what he would do with an engineering degree. He didn’t really know either, because his dad had suggested engineering to him. He said he would probably build things. It seemed silly to me.

A train engineer.

What I thought my friend was studying to become. 

Talk about egg on one’s face. Now I realize engineering is full of really cool shit, involving the application of science, math, and logic to real world problems. I honestly wish I had explored engineering as a possibility in undergrad, at least so that I’d have some experience with it. I think it should be required coursework for high school and college curricula.

When I asked my friend what he planned to do with an engineering degree, he should have told me the truth: Hack Nature. That’s what it is! A hacker is a person who figures out a way to repurpose a system in order to get a desired result. The system that engineers (re)purpose, as I said before, and probably can’t say enough, is nature itself.

Jerry, and of course all the other engineers at NASA, hacked the shit out of nature. Oh, did I mention they had only 24 hours to devise, test, and implement a solution? Yeah, they had only 24 hours. When I write a paper in 24 hours I’m pumped. Jerry figured out how to build an object, using very limited materials, that would jumpstart the dead circulation system, and teach the exhausted, cranky, poisoned astronauts hundreds of thousands of miles from Earth how to build it, so that they wouldn’t die, in 24 hours. Yeah, that’s a long sentence, longer than I’d like it to be. But some deeds deserve long sentences.

127 hours poster

Pshhhh, it took this engineer 127 hours to save his own life! That’s like, thrice the time it took Jerry and Ed to save three other people! TROLLOLOL 

The Lunar Module had some hoses and fans to help air up the space suits, because it was from the Lunar Module that Jim Lovell and Fred Haise had intended to make moonfall. That objective cancelled, Jerry could detach the hose from the suit, and use it as a device to push air around. The lithium hydroxide doesn’t do any filtering by just sitting there in still air; the air has to move through it.

Herein lies the genius, the ingenuity, the cleverness, of their solution. All this time, you’ve probably expected something involving the round Lunar Module filter system. Maybe you thought the bags would be used as a sealed air tunnel through which the hose could blow air, via the square filter, into the trashcan receptacle. That’s how everyone else had been thinking about the problem, too. But not Jerry. In addition to seeing the system as a whole, he could see its individual parts, and their potential repurposes.

With a fan, hose, and the square filters, Jerry and Ed realized they didn’t even need the circle. They used the bag and the cardboard (and duct tape!) to fasten a sealed airway between the hose output and the square filter input, and just cleansed the air directly through the square filter, as a stand alone device. It is an elegant, brilliant solution, both for its simplicity and its circumstances.

The solution, called

The elegant solution, called “The Mailbox.” Notice the two completely unused LiOH canisters in the bottom right. 

Engineering is cool, and you should learn more about it, especially if you aren’t sure what you want to do with your life. Take a look around you and notice all of the contraptions engineered to improve your life. How many of them do you trust implicitly with your life in one way or another? The next time you’re rightfully ogling a deep space photograph of the universe, ogle too the masterful engineering that allows you to see those images, and many other scientific beauties. Finally, the next time you see a crumbling piece of America’s failing infrastructure, reflect on the importance of encouraging the next generation of engineers to get hacking.

A stock photo of engineering students.

A stock photo of some mechanical engineers (Above) (Below).

Another stock photo. This time with a model plane. 



About the Author: Seth Kurtenbach

Seth Kurtenbach's photo
Seth Kurtenbach is pursuing his PhD in computer science at the University of Missouri. His current research focuses on the application of formal logic to questions about knowledge and rationality. He has his Master's degree in philosophy from the University of Missouri, and is growing an epic beard in order to maintain his philosophical powers. You can email Seth at or follow him on Twitter: @SJKur.




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