Alien engineering | MIT Technology Review


In the fall of 1951, some 20 engineering students at MIT received a missive from a planet more than 30 light years from Earth. Confidential documents and memos, printed on letterhead dated 1,000 years in the future, detailed the discovery of intelligent life on a planet called Arcturus IV and described what humans knew about their alien brethren.

Methanians, as this alien race would be called, were radically different from humans. Descended from birds, the three-eyed, feathered creatures lived on an icy planet with a methane-based atmosphere and gravity 11 times stronger than that of Earth, which, according to 2951 documentation, was now a planet. called “Terra”. The high pressure and -100 ° C temperatures of Arcturus IV forced the Methanians to move slowly, using their long arms with three claws to balance themselves. A two second stimulus response delay prevented them from attempting anything that required a quick reaction time.

Compared to humans, Methanians had superior hearing, vocal range, and sight, including x-ray vision. They survived ammonia instead of water and could use limited telepathic abilities under duress. They had advanced atomic energy technology, but otherwise their technology lagged behind that of Earth. According to memos from Massachusetts Intergalactic Traders, Inc., this has made Arcturus IV a premier market for household products designed for LNG people by Terra’s brightest young engineers. The mission to build modern equipment for extraterrestrials was called “Project Dishpan”.

For about three weeks, students in John E. Arnold’s product design class immersed themselves in the exquisitely detailed sci-fi universe of the Methanians, all in an effort to rethink the rules of engineering here on Earth. The setup was worked out: The Arnold case study, conducted with help from the MIT Science Fiction Society, included fake scientific briefs, physiological and psychological assessments, environmental reports, and market analysis.

As fictitious as these documents are, the mission was real and difficult. The designs were to be optimized for LNGs, buildable using earth-based materials and methods, and functionally realistically within Arcturus settings. By immersing students in an unfamiliar world that would overturn even the most basic assumptions about how machines work and who use them, Arnold hoped to cultivate the imagination as well as technical expertise, and challenge the then-dominant idea that creativity was innate and could not be developed.

“There aren’t many places in the curriculum of a technical school where one can indulge in speculation,” Arnold wrote when the case study was published in 1952, “yet the speculation has been responsible for most of our scientific progress.

Arnold’s non-traditional teaching methods, seen as publicity stunts by some engineers, may have come from his own unorthodox path to engineering. Voted “the most talented” and “most popular” by his high school class, he studied psychology in college and graduated straight into the Great Depression. With scarce jobs, he worked as a night watchman in an oil factory, where he began to learn engineering and design by reading technical reports that sat on the president’s desk. He became a part-owner of an auto repair shop, trained as a mechanic, and moved to an industrial machinery factory, where he quickly became a designer. He then enrolled at MIT, earned a master’s degree in mechanical engineering in 1940, and returned just two years later to teach.

Arnold’s teaching methods encompassed issues that MIT students were not accustomed to encountering. For example, in response to his own dental problem, he challenged his product design class to work with professional researchers at the Tufts School of Dentistry to design a “dental mobilometer” that could measure tooth looseness. ‘a patient after gum treatment. The positive response from the students prompted him to revamp the class as Creative Engineering, which would help lead a rapid expansion of design classes at the Institute.

The work of this class would fall under the auspices of Arnold’s New Creative Engineering Lab. Here, students confronted the psychological, marketing and production aspects of the design with the challenges of engineering. He called them to become what he called “positive mavericks”. Extravagant ideas were encouraged. As reported in Life magazine, Arnold urged his students to follow the advice of advertising director and brainstorming inventor Alex Osborn: “It’s easier to tone down a crazy idea than it is to tone up a dull idea. You have millions of potential circuits waiting in your brain – try to connect as much as you can without a conscience or a judgment saying “no” before the idea is even formed or reformed.

And what better way to test the limits of the imagination than by pushing students out of this world? Arnold unveiled the Arcturus Project in 1951, and the mission quickly expanded from home products to transportation and farming technologies. The students designed, and in some cases attempted to build, inventions such as a clock that followed Arcturus’ 159 hours (using Methane time units and a base six digital system), an air hammer designed to pulverize hard, volcanic soil into underground farms where plants grow upside down, and a vehicle called the Eggomobile whose speed of eight miles per hour and oval shape was designed to maximize the safety of aliens as well as “the security of protection they enjoyed before the outbreak ”.

Even though Project Arcturus was only part of Arnold’s engineering course – other assignments focused on reinventing what he called “more mundane, earthly designs” like rail cars. iron – industry and media have taken note. In addition to teaching MIT students, Arnold soon ran summer seminars that introduced Methanites to executives from organizations like Eastman Kodak, Bell Labs, and RCA, and he helped General Motors establish its own engineering program. creative. By the time he got a full professorship at Stanford in 1957, his summer seminars included guest lectures by pioneers of creativity, including psychologist Abraham Harold Maslow and inventor R. Buckminster Fuller.

Arnold’s students moved into jobs where they designed things like tiny surgical knives doctors could clip to their fingers, machines that automatically polished television panels, and GM’s Firebird II concept car. Although Arnold died of a heart attack while on sabbatical in Italy in 1963, his philosophy on education and creativity helped lay the groundwork for design thinking, a method currently used to design and develop design ideas, and for modern engineering programs, that Arnold claimed should reward new ideas and approaches to orthodoxy.

One of Arnold’s graduate students, Raymond Pittman, SM 55, succinctly summed up his advisor’s philosophy in his dissertation: “Many ‘obvious’ attributes are overlooked by ‘experts’ or those who know the product too well. . To quote Professor John Arnold, “I don’t think you have to be an amateur to innovate, but it may be true that you have to think like one.” “

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