Scientists, Engineers, and Coders

Last modified

Wed, 02/27/2019 - 19:00

Over the past 20 years, I have met, filmed, written about, and followed dozens of scientists and explorers. I have always found that these scientists brilliant, inspirational, and technologically savvy. But I have also discovered that there is an engineer or more typically a whole team including engineers, coders, specialists, and technicians that support their every move.  From tsunami researcher Dr. Vasily Titov to oceanographers like Dr. Bob Ballard and Dr. Sylvia Earle to climatologist and computational scientist Dr. James Hack, it was clear to see that their success was built as much in their own vision but also on their teams’ efforts.

It was fascinating to listen to each of them speak, but as I recall those encounters, I also recall their honoring the supporting cast around them that made their work possible.  The notion of the singular scientist sitting on a stool deep in the basement of their lab building is long gone. Today it takes dozens if not hundreds of people to support their efforts.

I recall Dr. Titov introducing our film team to his engineering team. He insisted that we showcase their work and efforts equal to his. They took his vision of what he wanted to do and made it real.  Vasily was the researcher on watch the day the 2004 Indonesian earthquake and subsequent tsunami struck in the Indian Ocean. His computer models predicted that the quake had generated a monster tsunami. He could only envision the devastation that was occurring. The computer model was shown correct and the result of the quake was that as many as 250 thousand people died. That day drove him to continue his advocacy in preventing future catastrophes and loss of life through in the Indian Ocean with the building of a buoy and communications network that would allow governments to warn people to retreat to higher ground. His code was shown accurate and sadly proved right, but armed with its accuracy, there is now a buoy network built by the engineers and monitored by computer code in the Indian Ocean protecting the people around its coasts.

The tsunami of 26 December 2004 destroyed the nearby city of Banda Aceh leaving only a few structures standing.  Photo courtesy of Yuichi Nishimura, Hokkaido University.

Drs. Ballard and Earle both had the drive to explore the deep oceans. They knew deep-sea exploration was impossible without some extreme engineering. In Dr. Ballard’s case, his team of engineers built remotely operated vehicles (ROV) to allow him to send cameras and other data gathering devices to the bottom of the world’s oceans.  Dr. Earle was a pioneer user of the JIM suit that allowed a person to work in relative comfort at depths of up to 1250 ft.   While today the vehicle of choice in doing work below the surface is the ROV, both technologies helped humans explore and work deep in the ocean. The number of coders, data processors, technicians, and engineers who supported both of their work was amazing to see.

Sylvia Earle
Dr. Sylvia Earle in a JIM suit. Photo courtesy NOAA


Dr. Hack was fascinating to meet because he exemplifies a new breed of scientist. His skill is studying and parsing the meaning of huge sets of current and past weather data coming in from around the world. He uses this data to build climate models that predict global climate change. His knowledge of climatology and having skills using computers allows him to use these massive data sets and write the code to make his predictions. He uses supercomputers like Titan, at Oak Ridge National Lab to execute the code he works with. The data he receives is used to predict the climate throughout the world years into the future. However, he did not do it alone.  He has hundreds of people around him from engineers and coders to technicians and other climatologists that helped him not just input more data, but actually create maps that showed how temperatures, precipitation and other elements of weather would change over the coming years. The engineering and coding are extreme, to say the least. The cooling and electrical systems that keep Titan running would keep a small city comfortable and lit. The code can process millions of data points every second.

Titan at ORNL
Photo courtesy of DOE/ORNL

Each of these people and the many more not mentioned here that I have met, clearly demonstrate the team approach that is needed to make big discoveries. They need people who are as comfortable with science as they are with building circuits, writing code, or making machines.

Think of the great advancements in science over the past couple of generations like decoding the human genome, putting machines of exploration throughout the solar system, studying the far reaches of the universe, or understanding the composition of the interior of Earth you will find scientists supported and elevated by their teams of engineers, coders, and technicians.

The cutting edge of teaching biology once ended at teaching students how to use an optical microscope or perform a dissection but now has extended to students extracting and analyzing DNA or interpreting data sets on animal migration patterns.  There are students in high school today building cube satellites for launching into space who want to study Earth and space with their constructs.

As you work with the Arduino projects here, I hope that you experience a sense of anticipation of what your students can do as they write code and build machines. I believe you are teaching the skills needed by your students to be technically literate in the future and deserve accolades for preparing them so. I have seen firsthand how rewarded student feel when they build their own tools and then use them to understand the questions posed to them or solve the problems they see. We encourage you to encourage and validate the questions and extensions the students share with you. These projects are meant to be the beginning of a journey to ask questions and make discoveries.