An Engineer's Literary Notebook

Exploring the real and surreal connections between poetry and engineering

Posts Tagged ‘engineering’

A Duality in Domains

Posted by xbanguyen on May 2, 2010

Lately I have become hesitant in thinking of  numbers as austere things, well-defined and finite. It used to be that numbers had a different kind of charm, mostly because I knew where I was with them – one mole contains one Avogadro constant, 6.0221415 × 1023, of molecules –  exactly the number of atoms in 12 grams of carbon. There are 1000 meters in one kilometer, 149,597,871 kilometer in one astronomical unit , and one astronomical unit  separate the center of the sun from the center of the earth.  I used to think that comfort could be found in numbers because they carried no apparent ambiguity. Then I ran into this book, “The Solitude of Prime Numbers”, and my perception was shaken. Consider the solitary  3 and 5, 17 and 19, so close together but will never meet. There is a quality of timelessness in this exclusion zone where each prime number exists. That irrefutable distance makes these numbers appear forlorn and makes me yearn for time, time as a medium, intangible but could be used to track other things such as different types of  signals.  It is useful to be able to pick out a particular signal among others, for example, a human voice in the midst of a noisy transmission.  An electrical signal varies over time, and its magnitudes at instances in time differentiate it from other signals.  In time domain analysis, a signal is expressed as a function of time, made visible via an oscilloscope.  Since time and frequency are complementary in nature, the same signal can be converted into frequency domain as Fourier’s theory states that any waveform in time domain can be described as a sum of sine and cosine waves of different frequencies.  The same signal exists both in the domain of time and the domain of frequency, just like the same shade of blue exists on the petals of the himalayan poppies and in my memory of this flower one summer ago.

Now it is spring. This afternoon as I worked in the garden I saw beauty anew in the color of the geranium. Despite its red boldness, it unfurled its petals gently away from the chartreuse buds.  This brings to mind a fragment of an Eleanor Wilner’s poem:

… beauty had no figure, no sacred

symmetry, centripetal, slowly opening

To a half-glimpsed nuclear core –

hot enough to melt the artic,

icebound heart of God,

One flower in Eden

and they would have known

beauty, and knowing that,

would know how beauty fades.

Why is it not incongruous to detect a trace of melancholy here? Perhaps because when happy, it is best to leave a bit of pleasure unenjoyed, lest the gods are jealous, as if we had a choice.  That is how I feel about the anatomy of melancholy tonight. Come to think of it, we always have a choice, and the act of making choices in itself is an adventure.  Thank you, dear muse.

Acknowledgement: The waveform graph is from

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A Time To Measure

Posted by xbanguyen on August 4, 2009

Somehow the idea that we can measure a very small amount of time, a femtosecond for instance, really appeals to me. It does not matter that it is not I who can do the measuring. Paradoxically I also take pleasure in knowing that the electrons will go their own ways regardless whether or not they are used as the tools for such measurements. The idea that tiny particles are now going about their business in the void that is my body is compelling.  For me, time has often been a scarce commodity.  So it’s fitting to begin my first post this way. Rereading what I wrote pre-blog, my haphazard collection of essays and the overwrought poems  stuck in a directory somewhere on this hard-drive makes me think that I need to deal with time first and it won’t be the last time. So how do I deal with time? Why am I blogging now instead of sleeping? It’s past midnight here in my part of the world.

Let’s throw time into the soup made up of one part beauty and two parts faith (no, not that kind, perhaps later).    I’ve found that sometimes beauty shows up at unexpected places.  Take simulation waveforms, for example.  In my  work as an an engineer for  a company that makes medical devices, I often use waveforms to trouble shoot logic problems.  The waveforms are often green — I want to say chartreuse green because I like the word chartreuse, but it would not be accurate.  So they are green against the default black background.  Pages full of waveforms can weave themselves into striking patterns as I zoom in and out in search for clues.   There are always clues.  One has to believe in logic, with passion at times, that the causes that manifest themselves in a particular bug will be found even if it appears confounding.  At the same time one has to proceed with dispassion, methodically, to find the pesky thing.  And simulation waveforms are displayed in units of time, mostly nanoseconds.   How many nanoseconds has it been since Andrew Marvell wrote these lines?

But at my back I always hear

Time’s winged chariot hurrying near

Most of the time I forget about the amorous intention of the poet and only hear that relentless chariot  gaining on me.  But what would happen if it catches up with me?  What am I really afraid of?  That there will not be another summer as delightful as this one has been?  While I don’t disagree with Henry James that summer afternoon are the two most beautiful words in the English language, I think that summer morning are possibly better.  Just the potentials alone make it so.  The summer morning sky takes on such impossibly vivid blue that colors the coming day with a sheen of possibility.  Even the early summer morning air feels different, fresh with not only a hint of promises but also seductive with the certainty of promises fulfilled.  Get up really early tomorrow morning, stand in front of  the open window and breathe in deeply.  You’ll know what I mean.

Come to think of it, there is something melancholy about a summer afternoon, the charm of having a cream tea completed with cucumber sandwiches and scones notwithstanding because dusk approaches and with it comes darkness.    But what about the stars?  What about the scent of jasmine? What about the fireflies and other things of beauty that accompany twilight?  Perhaps I am missing the point while seeking an illusion of permanence.

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