I’m back at my keyboard after a brief, but enjoyable, vacation. Like last year, I trekked with my family to the Oregon Coast. Yes, we enjoy time at the beach, though this time we travelled with extended family so we spent a bit more time driving around site seeing than playing in the tide. In seven days I personally logged some 1200 miles in the driver’s seat. Luckily I don’t mind driving.
We visited many of our favorite locations in and around Newport, Oregon. If you’ve spent any time on the Oregon coast, you are no doubt familiar with places like the Oregon Coast Aquarium, Mo’s Seafood Restaurant, and the Lincoln City Outlet Mall (no trip to the coast is complete without a shopping run – at least according to my wife and teenage daughter).
The real highlight of a coast trip, however, is time on the beach. Depending on our coast location, we chase waves, scout out tide pools, or just walk along enjoying sand and surf. On this trip, we spent some time exploring Beverly and Agate beaches, both just a short drive North of Newport. Each beach is a bit unique in what it offers beach goers. Agate Beach, for instance, offered a glimpse of Japan’s recent tsunami history: a large Japanese floating dock (66 feet long, 19 feet wide, and 7 feet high, weighing in at 165 tons) washed ashore in early June. Prior to the tsunami, this dock moored boats in the fishing port of Misawa along Japan’s Eastern coast.
I’m also writing this on the day of NASA’s most recent triumph — landing the Curiosity rover on Mars. Ten years of design and test, eight months of space flight, and seven minutes of decent resulting in a pinpoint landing in the Gale Crater — right where NASA wanted Curiosity to land. Now the world has a small, but well equipped, nuclear powered mobile research station gathering important information about our neighbor planet. No question that Curiosity is both an engineering triumph, and even a bit of a miracle, based on many man years of, among other things, modeling and simulation.
So what do Curiosity and the Japanese dock washed ashore on Agate beach have in common? While I could make a few comparisons between the two, I’ll mention just one. When we design a system, we need to take environmental factors into account – whether the environment is here on earth, or several million miles away on another planet. Modeling and simulation can play key roles in accounting for environmental conditions. Curiosity’s initial success reminds us that it is possible to do what may at first seem impossible. And the dock from Misawa, Japan reminds us that no matter how well we design and how thoroughly we account for probable conditions, Mother Nature reserves her right to show us she is still the boss. She can work with us to complement our efforts, or work against us to squash what may have taken years to develop — often in the blink of an eye.
I look forward to seeing what Curiosity can teach us about the possibility of life sustaining elements on Mars. But we all need to remember that, no matter how well we plan for system reliability and survivability, there are simply some things that are just out of our control.