Space: An Engineering Frontier
The discovery of gravitational waves opens up new ways to inspire students and connect them to the world out there.
Opinion by Adedeji B. Badiru
Just over a year ago, scientists detected for the first time the gravitational waves that have been traveling through the universe ever since the collision of two black holes over 1.3 billion years ago. This breakthrough by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) marked the culmination of 50 years of research and confirmed a prediction made by Albert Einstein a century earlier. While exciting for physicists, the discovery can also be used to enrich and broaden engineering education.
Throughout history, engineers have leveraged new science to design, develop, and deploy new products to tackle the world’s toughest challenges. Tackling new challenges in the universe is a natural progression in the exploratory spirit of humans. Who knows where the human race will migrate in the future? When modern humans first appeared in the warmth of Africa over 200,000 years ago, it would have been inconceivable, based on the pedestal knowledge of that time, to expect humans to end up spreading to seemingly inhospitable places on Earth, such as Siberia. But humans have a knack for exploring, settling, adapting, and thriving in new frontiers. The newly discovered gravitational waves suggest possible new frontiers for human exploration and exploitation. Engineering educators should not watch from the sidelines. Rather, we should embrace and link the new knowledge to engineering curricula that directly address space science. Deep space cannot be explored fully without the backing of engineering ingenuity. We have to prepare our students for that call to duty.
We can leverage the discovery of gravitational waves to transform engineering education in ways that prepare us to migrate to new frontiers in space and help solve the pressing problems of our current world. Even in courses where there may not be a direct or apparent relationship to the theory of gravitational waves, engineering educators can leverage the discovery to motivate and inspire students, giving them new appreciation and respect for the theory and laws of the universe. Looking beyond the actual discovery, we learn about the integral role of engineering in the whole LIGO enterprise. Indeed, this month, the Optical Society of America (OSA) will bestow its Team Engineering Excellence Award on the more than 90 people who played important engineering roles in what LIGO calls “the most sensitive measurement instrument ever built.” Overcoming “daunting” challenges, OSA said, the team “connected optical, electrical and mechanical elements of advanced interferometry to find engineering success at the limits of human endeavor.” Those are stirring words, but they offer just a hint of the interdisciplinary frontiers that space science opens up for future engineers.
As to our current worldly challenges, I would conjecture that the study of gravitational waves might help address at least some of the 14 “grand challenges” identified by the National Academy of Engineering in 2008. Gravitational waves may help us understand the travel of solar waves and thereby “make solar energy economical,” to quote the title of one challenge, or hold a key to unlock “energy from fusion.” They may portend new atmospheric studies to advance carbon sequestration to mitigate global warming or help us manage the nitrogen cycle and improve gas transportation. We might study how gravitational waves affect water in the atmosphere and use this knowledge to provide access to clean water.
Just as scientists have patiently dedicated time and space (pun intended) and resources to proving the existence of gravitational waves, engineers should ponder how this and future scientific breakthroughs can influence how we craft and deliver the engineering education of the future.
Adedeji B. Badiru is a professor of systems engineering and dean of engineering at the Air Force Institute of Technology (AFIT).