The Light Side

The Light Side: Top 10 Movies for Engineers

Oct 17, 2014

Plus: Google Goes Inventive with Desert 'Street View'; Ocean Topography Mapped in Detail; and Did Ancient Kangaroo Hop or Mope Around?

I've always loved film. The power of the moving picture to inspire and entertain knows no bounds. It is no surprise then that many engineering professionals have a list of "talkies" that piqued their interests in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

To honor these films I created a list of the best movies that inspired my life, interests, and career in STEM. This is by no means an exhaustive list. Please comment below with any movies that inspired your own engineering career.

10. "Star Trek: First Contact"

An inspirational movie list for engineers would be incomplete without an entry from the "Star Trek" canon. Unfortunately, many of the films focus more on action and less on the engineering and social commentary of the TV shows. "First Contact," however, brings us back to the invention that started it all: the warp drive. Though only peppered as a side story throughout the film, the creation of the first faster-than-light craft did captivate me as a child. A larger focus on the invention would have surely improved the ranking of this "Star Trek" film.

Pacific Rim. Credit: Warner Bros. Pacific Rim. Credit: Warner Bros.

In "First Contact," captain Jean-Luc Picard and his crew chase the Borg back to the end of World War 3. With Earth in shambles, an unlikely man is destined to unite the governments and bring the human race into first contact on the final frontier. Can the crew of the Enterprise save their future, or will resistance be futile?

9. "Pacific Rim"

There is really no way around it: "Pacific Rim" is fun. Giant mechanized robots fighting giant aliens traveling to Earth through a portal in the ocean. What can go wrong?

The shocking fact of the matter is that director Guillermo del Toro made "Pacific Rim" smart. The character development is real, as personalities, the acting, and their actions are all believable. But in the end, any engineer is there for the cool mechs. Am I right?

8. "The Thirteenth Floor"

"The Thirteenth Floor" might be a little esoteric, but who doesn't like the puzzle of a modern-day film noir? Now add a computer company creating a 1930s virtual reality and you have a real treat for engineers. I'm not going to say much about "Thirteenth Floor," as to do so would be a tragedy to your viewing experience. I mean, who wants to see the end of the road before they reach the destination? But if the murder-mystery puzzle doesn't catch your interest, then perhaps the VR sci-fi element will.

7. "Hugo"

With "Hugo" on the list, we move from a 1930s VR film noir to a 1930s steampunkish world. "Hugo" is essentially Martin Scorsese's love letter to French illusionist and film maker Georges Méličs. It follows 12-year-old orphan Hugo Cabret as he tries to complete his father's work to make a clockwork automaton. In doing so, Hugo embarks on an unlikely adventure.

"Hugo" takes you on a fun yet unexpected journey, and the film is filled with enough mechanical eye candy to make any engineer happy.

6. "Good Will Hunting"

We don't expect the geniuses at MIT to be roaming the halls as a janitor. But after anonymously solving a series of difficult mathematical problems, janitor Will Hunting catches the eye of professor Gerald Lambeau. Hunting finds himself in trouble with the law, but Lambeau makes a deal to keep Hunting out of jail if he studies under him and attends behavioral health treatment. After a series of failed therapists, Hunting meets Dr. Sean Maguire, who finally cracks Hunting's shell and brings the genius closer to stability.

Many great minds hurt and can feel lonely from time to time. It's a good reminder to engineers that they are not alone. It's healthy for us to remember that though we may be "the smartest in the room," we cannot solve everything on our own. And despite our intelligence, we may not understand what is right in front of us.

5. "Tron"

"Tron" tells the story of Kevin Flynn, fired as an ENCOM computer programmer after senior VP Ed Dillinger steals his work. It's up to Flynn and his friends to prove his worth to the company. The only problem is, they must do it from inside the computer, literally.

"Tron" was revolutionary. The box-office flop was simply ahead of its time. As one of the first films to rely heavily on computer-generated graphics, "Tron" opened the door for many of the films we enjoy today. Simply watching the behind-the-scenes material is a treat for any engineer, but to watch the film is breathtaking. My only complaint is you might want some earplugs for the harsh electronic music. Don't worry, though, they more than make up for that music in the soundtrack of the 2010 sequel, "Tron: Legacy."

4. "Sphere"

The true genius of writer Michael Crichton isn't just that he has come up with some of the best science-fictions stories of our time, it's that he hides the fiction in hard scientific fact. The real challenge was which "book-to-film" adaptation deserved to be on the list. Though many would choose "Jurassic Park," and who would blame them, the adaptation of" Sphere" brings in more of that problem-solving, science, and engineering you expect from a Crichton story. Better yet, it does it with submarines and dive equipment.

"Sphere" tells the story of Dr. Harry Adams, a mathematician chosen by the U.S. Navy to lead a science team on an expedition to a crashed UFO under the Pacific Ocean. What do Adams, the Navy, and his team find? Now that would be telling.

3. "The Social Network"

Unless you have been living under a rock, you use Mark Zuckerberg's monster website, Facebook. "The Social Network" tells the story of how the computer genius started the Net's biggest party and burned a lot of bridges along the way.

With a director-writer team of David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin, you're sure to find a captivating, intelligent film. It's hard to make a 10-minute-long scene about hacking interesting, but "The Social Network" pulls it off.

2. "October Sky"

"October Sky" is the hallmark of inspirational filmography. The film is based on the childhood of real-life NASA engineer Homer Hickam (from his book "Rocket Boys"). It depicts his story growing up in a coal mine town dreaming of a life outside of the mines. To achieve his dream, Homer needed to get to college; too bad he wasn't built for a football scholarship. Inspired by the ground-breaking Sputnik 1 satellite, Homer and his friends set out to learn about rocketry and achieve their scholarships though the power of their minds, not their bodies.

Not everyone is born with all the breaks, the good life on a silver platter. To all those that dream big and have started small, "October Sky" is the film for you. After all, what is more American than rockets, explosions, and NASA?

1. "Apollo 13"

On April 11 1970, commander James Lovell, commander John Swigert, and pilot Fred Haise set out on a trip to the Moon on the Apollo 13 module. On April 13, however, an unknown glitch caused their oxygen tank to rupture. An army of NASA engineers had to pull off a four-day marathon to get the astronauts home alive.

Very few films depict engineers as heroes. Fewer are based off the lives of real engineering individuals. Fewer yet do so with a brilliant all-star cast. If you haven't seen "Apollo 13" yet, then Houston, we have a problem.

Honorable mentions

"The Andromeda Strain"

"Gravity"

"21"

"Close Encounters of the Third Kind"

"Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan"

"Jurassic Park"

"Contact"

"Hackers"

This article was originally published on Engineering.com and is adapted in its entirety with permission. For more stories like this please visit Engineering.com.

Google Goes Inventive with Desert 'Street View'

google-camel-liwa-desert-street-view-designboom-03You've given people around the world 360-degree, first-person perspectives of what the streets, alleyways, and places in 59 countries looks like, as if they were right there on the ground. However, there's a hump you just can't get over: a stretch of pristine desert in the United Arab Emirates that you want to capture but don't want to rip up while doing it. Since you're a genius company, you come up with an ingenious solution.

Since 2007, Google has been capturing destinations around the globe for its Street View map feature by using its roving fleet of cars equipped with its Trekker cameras and, wherever cars can't reach, humans on foot with cameras strapped to them. To add the Liwa Oasis, a 62-mile stretch of beautiful, curving sands about 90 miles southwest of Abu Dhabi, Google could have went with a dune buggy, but it decided to "employ" a 10-year-old camel named Raffia, mounting a Trekker camera onto its back.

"With every environment and every location, we try to customize the capture and how we do it for that part of the environment," Google spokesperson Monica Baz told The National newspaper. "In the case of Liwa, we fashioned it in a way so that it goes on a camel so that it can capture imagery the best, most authentic, and least damaging way."

In addition to minimizing its footprint on Liwa Oasis, Google's approach of mapping the desert's routes by walking replicated what nomads and caravan merchants have done for thousands of years. For Raffia the camel, it was no problem traversing his natural habitat with a giant camera; the weight of the rig probably felt the same as a human rider. Led by a human guide at his side rather on top of him, Raffia became the first animal to carry the Trekker camera, getting up at 6 a.m. (to beat rush-hour congestion, no doubt) to document every square inch of Liwa Oasis sand.

Images and a virtual tour of the Arabian desert are now available online. It's safe to say that no animal was harmed in the making of them.

Ocean Topography Mapped in Detail

SeafloorMap1Scientists at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography have leveraged two new sources of data to render the world's most detailed map of the ocean floor.

The new map, which was created using satellite data from both the ESA CryoSat-2 orbiter and NASA Jason-1 satellite, is a marked improvement over its previous incarnation - which was created over 20 years ago. In fact, once stitched together from its composite pieces, the new cartographic wonder revealed thousands of undersea mountains and abyssal hills, the world's most common geographic features.

In a paper recently submitted to the journal Science, the study's authors outlined their new map's importance: "One of the most important uses of this new marine gravity field will be to improve the estimates of sea floor depth in 80 percent of the oceans that remains uncharted or is buried beneath thick sediment."

In addition to sifting through the strata of sediment caking the ocean's floor, the map revealed new information about the planet's tectonic plates. Specifically, researchers have been given a glimpse of unknown continental connection in the Atlantic Ocean and eons-old movements in the Gulf of Mexico.

When one considers that more is known about the topographies of the Moon and Mars than that of the Earth's sea floor, the achievement made with Scripps' map is even more apparent. As techniques for remote sensing become capable of even higher-res surveys, mapping the depths of alien worlds might eventually be in our power.

This article was originally published on Engineering.com and is adapted in its entirety with permission. For more stories like this please visit Engineering.com.

Did Ancient Kangaroo Hop or Mope Around? 

Scientists recently hypothesized that ancient kangaroos didn't hop but rather walked on their two legs just like us. If this sounds crazy to you in a world used to seeing red and gray kangaroos bounce their way through the bush, scientists not involved in the recent study would agree, thinking that the extinct sthenurine kangaroos did hop about. This makes for a hotly debated field, as reported by Live Science.

"I suspect that the locomotion of sthenurines will continue to be debated, but that is what science is about - proposing hypotheses based on the available evidence and then testing them," said Natalie Warburton, senior lecturer of anatomy at Australia's Murdoch University, as if she were a joey on the non-hopping side prepping for a kickboxing match.. The available evidence she referred to came from Christine Janis, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Brown University, in Providence, R.I., who first became intrigued by the sthenurines' possible walking-based locomotion while on a trip to Sydney in 2005, because she didn't see a flexible spine in their skeletons. Modern-day kangaroos have flexible backbones, sturdy tails, and body structures enabling them to hop at high speeds.

Sthenurines, in comparison, had shorter legs, shorter tails, huge cores, and large hips that allegedly made hopping awkward even if they did try it 30,000 to 100,000 years ago in the Australian outback. Sthenurines were three times bigger than today's kangaroos and had stubby, rabbit-like faces. Janis went as far as saying that modern kangaroos, streamlined and powerful, "are not the norm" for giant marsupial anatomy. She appeared to have an ally in Karen Black, an Australian Research Council postdoctoral fellow of paleontology at the University of New South Wales, who said the sthenurines' massive size and other adaptations suited them more for bipedal walking than fast hopping.

No matter what definitive conclusion might turn up, we're confident these scientists will keep their debate lively but civil rather than taking it out onto the streets like these two.