I'm hoping that being exposed to a liberal arts environment where we talk about history and culture and sociology and those kinds of things will give the engineering students a better understanding of how their work fits into the bigger picture of the world. And hopefully then the problems that they think are important will be problems that are important to society as a whole.
In 1995, the spacecraft Galileo began orbiting Jupiter. Over the next eight years, Galileo sent back images of deep oceans and erupting volcanoes, super bright lightning and icy crusts. All of these discoveries could have been missed, however, if the craft had succumbed to radiation bombardment just as it was maneuvering into orbit. Jupiter's atmosphere is rich with cosmic rays — tiny, high-energy atomic particles that penetrate right through a spacecraft's skin.
Because there is no feasible way to keep these minuscule particles out of the spacecraft, the onboard computers had to be able to withstand a hit. Thanks to the work of Assistant Professor of Electrical Engineering Joe Hass and his colleagues, the chips used to maneuver the craft were radiation hardened. That is, they were designed with enough redundancy that if radiation destroyed one section of the chip, another section could pick up the job.
The chips on Galileo are one example of an embedded computer. Much smaller than the desktop, laptop, or even cell phone you are using to view this article, embedded computers are those we don't see, but they control everything from our cars to our microwave ovens to spacecraft. As an electrical engineer working at Sandia National Labs in Albuquerque, N.M., Hass has designed embedded computers for a variety of applications, including the 32-bit chip that ran the camera for the Mars Global Surveyor mission, which was the highest performance computer of its kind at the time.
Among his more Earth-bound interests is developing ways to reduce the enormous energy demands of the Internet. "The amount of power consumed by just moving data around is starting to become a significant fraction of the total energy we use," he says. Hass is also doing exploratory research on potential new memory chip technologies that could store information not as charge, but perhaps as magnetic fields or even by altering the physical state of a material.
An ardent advocate of creating a greater science and technology literacy, Hass says, "I think it can be universal if we don't go in with a preconceived notion of what engineering is and instead look at what these students think is important."
Hass is excited to join a liberal arts institution like Bucknell and brings that energy with him to Pennsylvania. "I'm hoping that being exposed to a liberal arts environment where we talk about history and culture and sociology and those kinds of things will give the engineering students a better understanding of how their work fits into the bigger picture of the world," he says. "And hopefully then the problems that they think are important will be problems that are important to society as a whole."
Posted Sept. 22, 2009