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Atomic engineering?

Less than two months after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, one of the world's leading minds in aeronautics saw potential applications of nuclear power for constructive uses--and skills that the new field would require.

Now it seems we are at the threshold of the new atomic age.

I do not know whether or not this is true, but certainly we shall have "nuclear engineering" in the fields of energy and transportation. Are we prepared for the problems involved? ...

I raise the question: Do we give today to the future engineer enough fundamental knowledge in basic questions of the structure of matter, the nature of energy, the relation between matter and energy, so that he will be able to think intelligently in the new field, to have good engineering judgment on possibilities and methods? ...

First, I believe we have a tendency to restrict our teaching to scientific knowledge which has immediate applications. We often forget that almost every new physical or chemical discovery might have engineering application. After all, engineering is the conquest of nature, i.e. matter and energy, for human comfort, and therefore an engineer cannot know too much about the inner structure of the matter, against whose whimsical moods he struggles, and the laws of energy, which he wants to exploit and harness.

Second, we underestimate the interest of our students in "natural philosophy." We are reluctant to present the fundamentals of physics and chemistry as a living science full of question marks and changing concepts. We believe we ought to introduce the findings of research only after the unshakable truth has been established. We tend to stick to classical concepts. I found, while teaching mechanics of continuous media, elasticity, and fluid dynamics, my students listened eagerly as I told them something about atomic structure of the materials and kinetic theory of gases. I wonder how many engineering students obtain a picture of entropy, chemical reaction, and the like from a modern point of view. And why should ordinary combustion be an engineering topic, and nuclear reaction a mystery of modern alchemy?



It was nine years after Theodore von Karman's article appeared before the first nuclear power plant sent electricity to the grid. The 5 MW Peaceful Atom power station in Obninsk, Russia, began delivering electricity in June 1954 and continued to operate until 2002. The first industrial scale nuclear plant, Calder Hall in the U.K., with four 60 MW units, began operating in 1956. It also made weapons-grade plutonium for the British government. The first strictly commercial nuclear power plant came online in Shippingport, Pa., in 1957.


Public awareness of nuclear power was brand-new when this article was published in October 1945.

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Title Annotation:TECH BUZZ: VAULT
Author:Von Karman, Theodore
Publication:Mechanical Engineering-CIME
Date:Oct 1, 2015
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