One nice aspect of living (virtually) at Occam’s Typewriter is the diversity of authors. Though many (most? all?) have backgrounds present employment in science, the variety of topics in any given week provides for some fun reading. But there are certainly some common threads, not least because everyone here reads everyone else’s posts. The cross-pollination of discussions and topics is, at times, astounding in its energy.
One hot topic, as many of you know, is career paths, particularly given uncertain times for science funding in many (most? all?) of the jurisdictions in which we (physically) live. Erika, for example, just wrote a nice piece as a reminder that industry is an alternative to academia. Sylvia’s recent discussion of career options for post-docs is a good read too, as are any number of Athene’s posts, often focusing on gender inequality. And then there are the rest of the Occam’s Typewriter crew, often writing about careers, the interplay with “real” life, and future options. Try Jenny, or Richard, or Steve for a start. And when you’re done there, toddle on over to Stephen’s blog and watch his excellent film, I’m a Scientist. There’s lots more discussion of career paths, and the inevitable roots and rocks that you can trip over, in the other Occam’s Typewriter blogs too.
All of which is a roundabout way of getting to this, an example of a science career that is absolutely tailor-made for me to shoehorn together three of my favourite things into one gloriously amalgamated
homonculous homonculus conglomeration of a post: motorsports, photography, and science. Via Twitter, I was alerted to a nice article in the New York Times’ Wheels blog, beautifully titled Johns Hopkins Student Applies Dark Energy to the Black Art of Racing.
It seems that an enterprising Johns Hopkins student, one Dillon Brout, has spent the last season employed by one of my favourite endurance racing teams, Dyson Racing of the American Le Mans Series. Mr. Brout, the article goes on to state, joined his skills in analysis of complex data sets with a love of motorsport, helping the Dyson crew to secure the top-level Le Mans Prototype 1 (LMP1) series championship for 2011. Now, you could perhaps argue unfair advantage, since Brout’s training came from arguably one of the best possible places for making sense of disparate and complicated streams of data: the lab of Dr. Adam Riess, who just recently picked up a Nobel Prize “for the discovery of the accelerating expansion of the Universe through observations of distant supernovae”.
So how does this relate to racing? Well, race cars undergo all kinds of forces and stresses, and the best teams collect reams of real-time data from sensors all over the car – in the engine, measuring stresses on suspension components, monitoring tire temperature and pressure, fluid levels, electrical systems, fuel consumption – dozens of potentially important indicators of performance. Track position and adherence to the racing “line” around the track are logged. In some forms of racing, driver biometrics (heart rate, for example) are also carefully examined. These data and many more are collected on the fly, and are also written to memory cards that in long endurance races are swapped out during pit stops, so that the race engineer and other team members can get busy with analysis as the car heads back out on to the track. Clearly, it’s not all about throwing some fuel in, banging some new tires on, and driving like the wind. Racing these days is incredibly high-tech, particularly in the LMP1 class, where cars contain almost voodoo levels of proprietary technology. The Dyson Lola coupe pictured above, for example, runs a custom-built 2.0 litre turbocharged Mazda engine, running on isobutanol – a fuel that has some promise as a more environmentally friendly alternative to corn-distilled ethanol and petroleum products. Building such a thing isn’t easy, and getting it to run at full bore for two, three, six, twelve, or even twenty-four hours is distinctly non-trivial.
So that’s where a smart cookie like Dillon Brout comes in, bringing some serious data-bashing acumen to the table. It’s about as alternative a career for an astrophysics researcher as I can think of, but I can imagine that should he wish to pursue it, the big players in the racing world may be very interested indeed in this young man.