Locklin on science

Ruling engines and lapping the ultimate screw

Posted in Design, metalshop, Progress by Scott Locklin on April 16, 2022

The story of the ruling engine is one of those bizarro incredibly important things that has slipped into obscurity, only really known by people still directly involved in this sort of thing. I was briefly involved in this area working at LBNL’s Advanced Light Source, measuring diffraction gratings, their efficiencies, and attempting to estimate how well they’d work in presence of error. I promptly forgot almost all of it in favor of learning how to pants goth girls or whatever I repurposed that set of brain cells for, but it’s still in there rattling around somewhere.

Diffraction gratings are those little rainbow thingees on your credit card. Or if you’re old, you remember the rainbow patterns on CDs, those were sort of ad-hoc diffraction gratings. Ultimately it is a set of very precise lines across a mirror substrate. There are all kinds of profiles and shapes of diffraction gratings for different purposes, but they all work roughly the same way. Different wavelengths of light are reflected into different angles via constructive interference. The simple grating equation is \sin(\theta_m)=\sin(\theta) + m \frac{\lambda}{\Lambda} where m is the diffracted order, \theta_m is the angle of the diffracted order, \Lambda is the periodicity of the grating, and \lambda is the wavelength of the light diffracted.


This is a long winded way of saying if you reflect light on a grating, it will make a nice rainbow pattern. If you make a slit out of razorblades (this is basically what people use) perpendicular to the first order diffraction angle, you get a monochromator or spectrograph, depending on how you use it. This means you can resolve narrow lines in the spectra of whatever it is you’re looking at. Of course, nothing is perfect, least of all diffraction gratings. There’s a figure of merit in spectroscopy called resolving power; R = \frac{\lambda}{\Delta \lambda} where \lambda is the approximate wavelength of interest and \Delta \lambda is the narrowness of line you want to resolve. It’s easy to show that R is proportional to the number of coherently illuminated perfect grating lines, and that any error in grating line shape or tracking will cause R to be smaller. So  if you want to discover quantum mechanics, you need to make some nice lines otherwise you’re wasting your time. Oh yeah, and obviously if you want to resolve smaller wavelengths of light, say, in the UV, you need to rule your gratings with smaller lines.

Over complex representation of a monochromator or spectrograph

Now a days we have a number of ways of making gratings, but the first way (still important and used) is using a ruling engine, which is a very fine machine tool which mechanically draws lines on a substrate using a diamond anvil. The first important such tool was Rowland’s mentioned several times now; literally the machine that launched American physics and made quantum mechanics possible. There were gratings made before, but Rowland’s was the first to make useful gratings repeatedly. For decades it was the only one capable of making decent gratings; like a machine made by super intelligent alien beings that nobody else can figure out. For decades after this, all the subsequent ruling engines that worked were Rowland designs. The first successful ruling engine which wasn’t a Rowland design is the topic of the rest of this blog; that invented by the underappreciated experimental physicist John Donovan Strong (I’ve definitely been in the same room as him early in my career, but I can’t say I remember anything about him –his book is amazing BTW). This is the type of ruling engine still used today, more or less, with some additional complications of using feedback mechanisms made possible by electronics over the years. I’m following Strong’s article from 1951 as well as a couple of  Scientific American articles.

The original Rowland machine was a sort of overgrown and ultra precise metal shaper (or for a more familiar example; a grocery store meat slicer). Strong took his design cues from the much more uncommon metal planer. The difference, Rowland’s machine advanced the relatively heavy grating blank using the precision screw, making the screw subject to mechanical deformation and stick slip, while moving the diamond using ways that could wear out.  Remember, this thing is making long, straight lines, very precisely on the order of 1000/2000 lines per millimeter; a perfect line every 500-1000 nanometers. Real nanotechnology; not the imaginary kind done with Schroedinger’s equation and pixie dust. For contrast, an atom is around a tenth of a nanometer. While they call the latest semiconductor technology 14nm, it’s really more like 100nm, and diffraction gratings built with screws were doing that, over much larger areas than a defect free wafer more than 140 years ago using doodads such as these very precise screws. There were seven major sources of error with this design in absence of mechanical or manufacturing defects, to give an idea of the type of thing involved here; they were referred to as the “seven demons.”

  1. Stick slip/lubrication forces of the various moving parts caused large irregularities.
  2. Wear in the various parts of the engine were also hugely important; the carriage might travel miles in ruling a grating and the Rowland carriage was a big beefy object.
  3. The metal parts also contain locked-up stresses from creation from raw ore to machining; as the machine ages, the stresses relieve and the perfect surfaces deform.
  4. Creep also takes place from external forces; sag, motion, weight support.
  5. Any vibration may cause bad gratings to be made; one worker correlated his grating defects to the swaying of trees outside the building (this is huge with optics in general, especially in current year with all kinds of machinery around and driving by).
  6. Dust of course is a big problem; get dust under the diamond cutter or in the screw/nut interface and you’re, well, screwed.
  7. Finally, the heat radiated by a human body can cause sufficient creep in the engine to ruin a grating.

Strong’s gizmo obviated the stick slip problem by moving the diamond rather than the grating blank, removing the ways for moving the diamond, and improving both the lubrication of the screwing mechanisms, and the alignment techniques.  His thing used two precision screws to advance the diamond, and as they’re pointing in opposite directions, they can cancel out pressure and sag errors as well as angular “fanning” errors in the grating ruling (Rowland’s machine had microradian misalignments that borked the resolving power via this fanning effect; a microradian across a few inches is easily a wavelength of green light). Downside; you need two nice screws instead of just one.

Strong’s exposition was fascinating. He points out that precision in his day was entirely “primitive methods.” Aka geometry, averaging and lapping compounds. The dividing heads on the screws for making microscopic motions were self lapped in place on an oil bath. Instead of a kinematic mounting system for moving the grating, he overconstrained it with multiple ways which averaged out to a nice straight line.

Strong was a great scientist who understood machinery and tooling in great detail. He also had a couple of helpers he credited with his success. One of them was Wilbur Perry, an engineer trained at WPI. Before he went to school he made a bunch of telescopes, and was a proud member of the Springfield Vermont telescope makers society, which still maintains a clubhouse. Let me emphasize the implications of this: a tiny town of a few thousand people had a telescope makers society at the turn of the century, when telescopes were still high technology, and they endowed it well enough it is still physically there. That’s sort of like a small town of a few thousand people having its own privately owned MEMS fab in the 1990s when this became a more common technology. Social capital is highly underappreciated and they had lots of it in those days. Strong himself got many of his ideas for the ruling engine from hanging out in a club he founded with John Anderson (the previous John Hopkins Rowland engine driver); the “100-to-1 shot club.” Some nice oral history before it fades away: an interview with Henry Victor Neher:

NEHER: This was a small group that was formed at Caltech in about 1934 or ’35. The
way it originated was this. John Anderson, who was at the Mount Wilson Observatory, had an office at Caltech when he was working on the 200-inch telescope, back in the thirties. One of the members of the staff was a young fellow by the name of John Strong [professor of physics and astrophysics, 1937-1942], who had his experimental equipment in the same room in Bridge as I did. John Strong was over talking to John Anderson one day. John Strong was always interested in ideas of one sort or another. He was an inventor if there ever was one. John thought that there ought to be a group that considered far-out ideas of one sort or another.

INTERVIEWER: For example.

NEHER: Primarily ideas connected with something scientific or mechanical, or something of that sort. And John Anderson said, “Well, what you are suggesting is to discuss things that have one chance in a hundred of working.” And so, this is the way the 100-to-1 Shot Club was formed. They got a group together which consisted of John Strong, John Anderson, Russell Porter, Roger Hayward—who did that picture up there above the fireplace—and then some others not connected with the Institute, like Byron Graves. And there were a couple of patent attorneys in the group.
Well, I didn’t get into it right away. I guess it was about 1936 or ’37 before I became associated with it. We met once a month at various members’ homes. It was mostly discussions of ideas in connection with astronomy or with physics. There may have been some mechanical things. One of the members was George Mitchell, who designed and made the Mitchell camera that was used in Hollywood for years. Another was George Beadle [professor of biology 1946-1961], who joined after World War II.

INTERVIEWER: Did anything ever come out of it?

NEHER: No. It wasn’t meant to be that. It was just a place where you could just discuss anything you wanted.


Or as Strong himself put it:


We called it the “100 to 1 Shot Club.” We met at various member’s houses at Palomar; in the Mohave Desert; etc. — about 6 or 7 times a year. It was called by the name mentioned to indicate that our considerations (like: Does the water spin in a contrary way in the Southern hemisphere when it runs out of the bath tub? — etc.) were restricted to topics that were fantastic by a factor of 100:1 over scientific. The dozen members included: Trim Barkelov — patent council for Paramount Pictures Roger Hayward — artist and architect Victor Neher laboratory roommate George Mitchell — millionaire manufacturer of the Mitchell camera; a former Hollywood camera man Byron Graves — an amateur astronomer and retired executive from Ford Co. in Detroit John Anderson — my boss Jack McMorris — a chemist (and disappointed concert pianist) George Worrell — successor to Mitchell at the Camera plant Milton Humason — astronomer I mention this because it was a group worthy to go down in history.


The importance of such clubs can’t be overestimated. They’re everywhere in the annals of technological history; from Wernher von Braun and company’s rocket club, to the famous Lunar society, to the X club even the Bohemian Club was responsible for the US nuclear weapons program. Most great human ventures have started in some sort of men’s club. And yes, they were/are men’s clubs, u mad? As my pal BAP put it, only the most depraved ancient Greek tyrants would ban men’s associations:

A brotherhood of men in this form is the foundation of all higher life in general: there is a certain madness, an enthusiasm that exists also in a community of true scientists or artists…. it is totally forbidden in our time…. the dedication, severity, focus and enthusiasm necessary to sustain true scientific enterprise are forbidden because they make women and weaklings uncomfortable.

Back to badass screws, Wilbur Perry of the Springfield Telescope Club eventually got a job running the Rowland engines at John Hopkins and was widely recognized as a genius and meticulous engineer with perfect hands. Strong hired him for this expertise. His fellow technical  coworker was Dave Broadhead, another optics hacker who made complicated telescopes in his spare time, and at one point made a living crafting roof prisms for the war effort, something he picked up in his spare time from reading magazines. He literally made them in his basement. His education, as far as I am able to determine, was reading popular science and popular mechanics magazines, going to the library and fiddling with things. Broadhead is the kind of guy I keep harping about; the careful working class machinist craftsman who basically no longer exists in American society. . Strong at one point asked him for a pair of 36″ parabolic mirrors, which he literally made in his basement 30 days ahead of a 90 day schedule. So, for the ruling engine project, he was a shoe in. He was working class to the bone; treating his employers to venison dinners from deer he shot himself when they’d come visit his basement workshop in upstate New York. I have to wonder what his descendants are up to these days. Hopefully not shooting heroin which seems to be the primary avocation in that part of the world.

Broadhead was a wonder, like many of this class of instrument builder machinist. More importantly though, we have a fairly good first hand view into how he did it; all the steps. Nobody really documented how Rowland and his guys built his doodads. He wrote some post-facto notes down, but nothing in detail. Broadhead’s adventures in fine screw craftsmanship was much better documented. Broadhead’s first step in building the thing was rebuilding his basement South Bend lathe. Scraping the ways and refitting all the parts until it could hold a 1 micron cut. That’s 1/1000 of a mm. As Broadhead put it. “It’s an old lathe, but instrument makers use such lathes for centuries, just scraping ’em over -which they’d have to do even with new ones, for this work.” Scraping of course was the manual technique used to make a flat surface back in 1800 when Maudslay invented the screw cutting lathe. Mind you a South Bend lathe is not considered a toolroom lathe; it was mostly used for light work and was popular with hobbyists for its relatively low cost. According to one account “I journeyed to Wellsville and found Broadhead peering downward through a 50-power toolmaker’s microscope attached to the lathe. The tool was smoothly peeling off a shaving only one micron thick. Without the microscope it seemed to be cutting nothing”


To remove stress in the screw blanks, he had two garbage cans with inner cells, one for heat the other for dry ice,  so he could stress relieve the screws before the finish cuts. He dipped them in what he called “tincture of skunk cabbage” (overheated Mazola corn oil at 400F, 100F) and “hobo cocktails” (dry ice and alcohol at 10, -60 and -100F). He did this stress relief cycle 50 times per screw.

When he moved on to lapping, he rigged up a tape recorder which kept a record of the torque  of the screw being lapped in its giant split nut. This way he could keep track of progress on the lapping process and the recorder would tell him when there was a burr or requirement for more lapping compound. Mind you this is a 1940s era tape recorder, so in addition to being a great machinist, he must have known a thing or two about electronics back in the vacuum tube era. He also rigged up a motor mechanism and ran the thing on his wall in his basement.

Apparently the whole new ruling engine worked the first time, which is a minor miracle. A hugely successful scientific breakthrough done with a sort of miniature Klein type-1 organization. More of a Klein type-1 A-team;  a common type of group for successful experimental physics ventures. The origins in a couple of men’s clubs and a couple of obscure working class geniuses makes it all the more sweet.

It’s also an object lesson in why current year can’t have nice things. No men’s clubs thanks to various vile and pathetic tyrannies. No working class craftsmen making things in matter. No physicists who understand how a fucking screw works (who worked on the Kansas wheat harvests).  And tens of thousands of nincompoops fiddling around on a computer instead of learning how matter works with the eyes and fingers. The very idea of using such mechanical creativity by talking to other artificers and hammer and tongs precision work is anathema to current year bugmen. I’m pretty sure they’d find a way to call the whole project sexist and racist because they don’t understand how a fucking screw lap works either.

That is the biggest advance in the grating art that I am responsible for. I also made an advance in the lapping of lead screws that is recognized in industry. I developed several techniques which are useful in precision machine tool practice. And that was a consequence of the work on ruling engines. But my work on ruling engines, in a sense, was supernumerary, because now the control of the relative position of the ruling engines components is accomplished by interferometry. Here Harrison was the pioneer.

33 Responses

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  1. rademi said, on April 16, 2022 at 11:07 pm



  2. Scott said, on April 16, 2022 at 11:47 pm

    Scott, there’s no need to publish this since it’s more in the manner of a personal appreciation. I share many of your articles with my father, now 81, who recalls using a slide rule in the cockpit while flying AF in the 1960s. My dad studied aeronautical engineering in the 1950s and early 60s and worked on flight simulators at Wright Patterson after doing an MA in engineering at Illinois. Every time I send him one of your pieces—I’m slowly making my way through your site—he always responds animatedly about some aspect of his days in engineering. So many thanks—your perspective, based in matter and physical practice—always rings true, and I like your take that we peaked around 1970. I hope it’s not too late to return to that kind of greatness, and the attitudes of the groups of men who got us there.

    • Scott Locklin said, on April 17, 2022 at 9:39 am

      Hey thanks for the kind words, that’s why I write.

    • Louis Marmet said, on April 19, 2022 at 3:48 pm

      I learned to fly a Cessna with a slide rule calculator and a paper map, I learned to machine my own parts on a lathe and made a few threads, I fixed our very old colour TV by re-winding a transformer and improve feedback on the control grid of a vacuum tube, build my own reusable rockets before the Space Shuttle, programmed my drone for automated landing before SpaceX got their booster to land, etc. That’s the easy stuff, I’m not even 60 years old and realize that many people have done it before me…
      But I am someone who can ‘make things in matter’. This intimate contact with reality is necessary when one works in a physics lab.
      There are fewer of us relative to the size of the human population, but these rare individuals continue to produce greatness (even if it’s only one employee at SpaceX).

  3. Igor Bukanov said, on April 17, 2022 at 9:23 am

    I still think that the picture this paints of the current US is too dark.

    SpaceX does fine mechanical engineering. The way they direct the booster towards the landing platform is just brilliant. And their engines are nice.

    And for modern techno-magic look at ASML UV lithography machines, with a lot of research/development/manufacturing done in US.

    • Scott Locklin said, on April 17, 2022 at 9:49 am

      This was the effort of 3 people in 1950. Now think about what the US was doing in 1950. Jet engines, funny cars, computers, thermonuclear weapons, nuclear ramjets, transistors, television, supersonic flight, ICBMs, new technologies of the home: blenders, modern washing machines and vacuum cleaners, telephones, nylons, jukeboxes, mopeds …. medical: pacemakers, polio vaccines, heart lung machines, kidney transplants, heart valves, oral contraceptives, DNA, broad spectrum antibiotics, cataract surgery. I could go on at length here.

      Meanwhile you trot out Elon Musk (granted, his efforts are cool) and ASML, a Dutch company without which we would basically exist in 1980s technology land. You might as well mention MRNA vaccines: amazing “breakthrough” that seems to do absolutely nothing other than give people weird cardiovascular diseases.

      • Igor Bukanov said, on April 17, 2022 at 1:53 pm

        ASML is not just a Dutch company. They bought a lot of companies including, in particular lithography equipment manufacturer from California that continue to be a key research and manufacture center for ASML. And I wrote SpaceX, not Elon Musk since I think at best Elon was enabler of the culture that allowed to produce cool space stuff, but later he became just sort of a talking head for the company.

        As for wonders of sixties David Graeber few years ago wrote an article asking why there was no flying cars. In it he listed pretty much the same things from fifties and sixties as you presented above and wondered why the progress has stopped. He also listed quite a few ills of modern US that matched what your described in your blog. Yet as a guy with very leftish views he considered it as an evidence that very conservative right in US has won. In particular, he thought it was a conspiracy of US bureaucracy to stop the progress to take the power from or even destroy the middle class. That is, the perception of modern US ills that I got from Graeber is similar to what I read in you blog, but he attributed it to the opposite reasons.

        My personal view is that the progress of sixties was not that big in reality. It just happened to be very visible in US but it was mostly gradual improvement on older stuff, amplified perhaps by influx of engineers from Europe due to WWII.

        Similarly the current ills in US cannot be that bad. If the picture that I read from your blog or Graeber’s book would be true, then any technological progress in US should have stopped and would not allow for a lot of interesting things like SPARK reactor, progress in batteries and many other areas of material engineering. What happened was that Internet and social networks made the ills much more visible.

        • Scott Locklin said, on April 17, 2022 at 10:03 pm

          “Sony is not just a japanese company.”

          Please name one thing that happened last year as good and incrementally useful as what I described above. You can’t. Because there ain’t any.

          • Igor Bukanov said, on April 18, 2022 at 7:41 am

            Each year in Norway I like to rent an electrical car and take a trip to mountains to hike. In summer 2021 it was for the first time I realized that the range was no longer an issue and I stopped planning the trip around charging stations. And it was just with the latest not particularly fancy Kia with shorter range than Tesla-3.

            Then in Norway electrical scooters for rent became so widespread in 2021 that cities had to limit their number and tried to prevent using them while drunk.

            Things more applicable to US are Apple notebooks that can last the whole day on a single charge while still allowing to do useful work.

            3-d printers even of cheap variety became very practical. I suppose the main problem with their mass adoption is the need to work with 3-d models to design custom stuff, which is still rather specialized skill. Plus to make many things one needs really good ventilation.

            Then consider James Webb telescope. So far its extremely complex deployment sequence has been running smoothly without a single hiccup. Which tells a lot of quality of engineering work involved.

            • Scott Locklin said, on April 18, 2022 at 8:44 am

              None of those things are as good or incrementally useful as the above, nor did they happen last year. Those are very humble and ordinary kinds of slow and incremental progress progress, like you’d expect other topics such as software or urban planning or automotive ergonomics to make, but don’t.

              “Me and two dudes made new industries possible because we thought hard about screws and how objects move in space” represents a minor league breakthrough, the types of which no longer happen in America at all, let alone major league breakthroughs.

              Solid printing is a great example of a perpetual technology of the future that persists in not actually being used for much of anything noteworthy or useful. I know people who have them; they use them to make little plastic gaming pieces. Ultimately the economic impact of something like solid printing is probably negative, as a lot of people are wasting a lot of time on something which doesn’t really help anyone. I suppose I also know people who use them to make blanks for casting aluminum molds; instead of carving up a piece of styrofoam they fiddle in solid designer for a few days. At the end of the day if you want something made out of aluminum, the plastic printer doesn’t really help anyone.

              • nate said, on April 18, 2022 at 3:56 pm

                You can print sintered steel and other metals through direct metal laser sintering. I don’t think people do aluminum, though, because that oxide layer is a tough nut to crack.

                There are printable plastics that can be used instead of aluminum, depending on your application. Things like PEEK or PEKK. They use them in custom medical tools and equipment because they can handle being put through an autoclave. I doubt if they have gotten up to the point were people are using 3D printed parts as implants, though. Don’t know much about that stuff.

                All this stuff is still way too expensive for people messing around in their basements, though. The machines are just within reach of small business budgets, but the materials themselves are exotic and expensive.

                • Scott Locklin said, on April 18, 2022 at 6:41 pm

                  Ya, once you get to sintering steel or whatever, you’d probably be better off using a CNC machine from barstock or casting, especially if you have to make more than one of them. Very, very limited application (they’re nice for making plastic prototype boxes; have been for at least 25 years) window with virtually no large scale economic benefit; very possibly an economic sink compared to investing in skilled artisans.

                  • nate said, on April 18, 2022 at 11:33 pm

                    If/When these things get to the point were they can replicate themselves and they are within reach of middle class fellows then we should see some fireworks. Eliminating the practical limitations of labor and only having time and resource as limitations is a economic change on par with the industrial revolution or dawning of the internet. We are talking about fundamental changes to society and the power structure.

                    All of a sudden instead of designing things to be quickly manufactured at large scale it becomes more important to design things with pure efficiency of material in mind. Make things like stamped steel and injected molded plastic be expensive in comparison.

                    If you can replicate 80-90% of your laser-sinter machine in the shop (and the rest come in a envelope from China) then it’s not going to be too much of a jump to get 25 or 30 of them all cranking away making parts simultaneously in a trailer in your backyard.

                    Guys that are good at working with their hands and are smart enough to communicate meaningfully with one another over the internet will be the new kings.

                    Or something like that. As you said, this is still future-tech. Absolutely.

                    • rademi said, on April 19, 2022 at 12:49 am

                      When we look out at all the controversies and problems facing us, we should also be a little skeptical about some of the claims about future self-replicating gear.

                      That said, biological organisms are capable of replicating themselves, so basically what we should expect here, as an eventual case, would probably be something analogous to farming. Plausibly with similar levels of labor and/or uncertainty (due to entropic issues).

                      In the meantime, though, tools will matter.

                      And complexity quickly becomes… complex.

                    • nate said, on April 20, 2022 at 12:12 pm

                      > When we look out at all the controversies and problems facing us, we should also be a little skeptical about some of the claims about future self-replicating gear.

                      The world is weird and it’s only ever going to get weirder.

                      I am not imagining some nano-bot ‘self assemble’ thing. What I am imagining is a vast increase in the diversity of labor saving devices. One of them being machines that take a combination of additive and subtractive (printing, welding, grinding) techniques to produce themselves and other machines in miniaturized (room sized) assembly lines.

                      As apposed to AI-powered do-everything bots. Some universal unspecialized bot that will do everything that humans can do seems like a silly thing to me.

                      So you can end up with things like crawlers that are designed to do move along the ground and pluck out weeds, or push small ones back into the dirt, and grind them up at a farm. Things that can identify blight or infestations and destroy them point-by-point before they can spread. So farmers can use swarms of those little buggers to eliminate the whole industry revolving around the biological modification of crops in order to handle ever more fucked up and dangerous chemical fertilizers and poisons being used on our foods.

                      Or planters that go up and down columns in vertical greenhouse farms that prepare beds, repair them, plant crops and then harvests them. One permanently affixed to each column. So that you can feed a small town from a couple acres of farmland. People growing tropical fruits in Maine and having it make economic sense.

                      With these specialized designs being worked on collaboratively over the internet. So you end up with a guy working on a modified design for a machine in his garage in Arizona and within a few hours that machine being used in the some place in Central Asia and him getting feedback on the results of his changes.

                      Sorta of like collaborative design using Legos, except you get to choose what sizes and shapes the Legos are as you pull them out of the box.

                      All sorts of things that are too expensive to do right now become cheap. Such as localized garbage sorting and recycling. People mining landfills, etc.

                    • rademi said, on April 20, 2022 at 3:24 pm

                      I definitely agree that we can advance the arts of fabrication.

                      But the people who would be making those advances would need to have access to large stocks of cheap resources to be fabricating from. And, while plastics are easy to work with, there’s a lot of applications where iron, copper, etc. are more suitable. And that runs into other issues…

                      The bit where the people doing the hard work are mostly in central asia is definitely one of those.

      • Robert Greene said, on April 18, 2022 at 6:37 pm

        … particularly about how to “pants Goth Girls”

  4. Moshe.Nik.A said, on April 17, 2022 at 2:00 pm

    If you were attending UNI now, would you still study physics or just maths/computar? Thanks for all the great posts you have written.

    • Scott Locklin said, on April 17, 2022 at 10:04 pm

      Whatever you study is less important than where you study. Don’t study anything in the US.

  5. William O. B'Livion said, on April 17, 2022 at 2:57 pm

    I have a question for you:

    I have a (now) 15 year old daughter, and as a form of torture, during the summers (meaning “school break”) I make her work her way through some educational book. Last summer it was a college level art history text–which she seemed to have little trouble with (tells you what you need to know about Art History types, no?).

    Anyway, summer is soon upon us, and I’m trying to decide what to inflict upon her this year.

    Any books you think I should look at for her?

    • rademi said, on April 17, 2022 at 4:57 pm

      An essential aspect of what I think Scott Locklin was driving at here would be that “books are insufficient”. You need more — you need to engage a person’s interests, you need to engage their fingers and eyes, you need something physical for them to test their concepts against.

      Books are great. Libraries are great. But they are not sufficient, in and of themselves, for a functioning society.

      Anyways, you haven’t said enough about your daughter’s interests to make suggestions about books which would interest her. And that’s a problem here.

      But, also, whatever you do, you should also, I think find some way for her to exercise the words — without that she will not be able to distinguish between nonsense and sense. This does not have to be world-shattering, but it needs to be something. And, it has to be interesting enough to her so that she will have some willingness to work through the inevitable frustrations when it turns out that either she mis-interpreted something or someone said something that was invalid.

    • Scott Locklin said, on April 17, 2022 at 10:03 pm

      Beowulf in old english.

      • Spear-dane said, on May 3, 2022 at 11:47 am

        Beowulf alone won’t last the summer. Throw in also the Wessex Gospels and maybe what remains of the Old English Pentateuch.

        Or, my recommendation, Allan Clark’s Elements of Abstract Algebra. A good application of the skills one leans reading art history.

        • Scott Locklin said, on May 3, 2022 at 5:38 pm

          Maybe its that easy for a spear-dane, but there’s a decent amount of work memorizing vocabulary and grammar there. It was one of the best things I ever did for myself, and I liked the exeter book and so on as well.

  6. Chiral3 said, on April 17, 2022 at 9:21 pm

    Awesome Scott. I didn’t know about much of what you wrote. Good stuff, thanks.

  7. Pascal said, on April 18, 2022 at 5:01 am

    You may appreciate: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fEoonCLTCbE Also the toolroom spindle videos.

  8. Brent said, on April 18, 2022 at 11:52 am

    Once more we share a reading list. Glazebrook’s 5-volume Dictionary of Applied Physics is worth tracking down too. Strong, from the same oral history you linked: “I have learned a lot of physics out of that book.”

    Having made holographic (“replica”, because it’s not a primitive technique, you need a grating to make a grating) gratings in an earlier phase of my life, the dedication necessary to make a ruling engine has always boggled my mind. Note that neither Rowland nor Strong stopped there, either. Example: https://americanhistory.si.edu/collections/search/object/nmah_1184648

    • Scott Locklin said, on April 18, 2022 at 1:32 pm

      Never heard of this one. Looks fun to have physical copies of, but the PDFs are poorly scanned.

      Strong was at Amherst the same time I was at UMass and I had thumbed through his book in one of my labs. I hadn’t fully appreciated what he had achieved and regret that nobody pointed it out to me more forcefully.

  9. Corsair said, on April 18, 2022 at 7:19 pm

    Was sent down the Burton Klein rabbit hole once again this afternoon (thanks), quite incredible how obscure he now is. His first paper at RAND, on military R&D, was co-authored with William Meckling. You can see the genesis of Klein’s later organizational ideas in it. Meckling went on to co-author one of the most famous/cited business/econ papers ever with Michael Jensen (linked below), outlining or at least foreshadowing much modern organizational theory: corporations as legal-fictional aggregations of agency relationships, shareholder value maximization, etc. Needless to say he went down a very different route from his old co-author. Interesting to think about a world where Klein’s organizational ideas became famous instead.

    Click to access jensen-meckling.pdf

  10. RGK said, on April 20, 2022 at 2:47 pm

    I don’t actually disagree with Scott’s political views – but the notion that “we peaked in 1970 because we can’t engineer things anymore” seems off.

    Case in point – commercial airplane crashes. Up through the 1990s, crashes due to mechanical/engineering failures and defects used to happen all the time; these days they’re always due to pilot error, deliberate human action, or software bugs. The machines themselves, and the maintenance/inspection regimes used to keep them running, are in effect perfect.

  11. Altitude Zero said, on April 21, 2022 at 10:27 pm

    I think that Scott would argue that better manufacture of essentially 50’s – 70’s technology like jet engines and control surfaces are the kind of incremental improvements that are still occurring, as opposed to technological breakthroughs, but of course he can speak for himself here.

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