Dr. Rick Martin on fire’s dual nature and human factors

September 12, 2014 | Posted by Gavin Huntley-Fenner | No Comments

RichardMartin-1-3I’ve read that all thermal engineers have an inner firebug is that true?
There is a very small kernel of truth to that rumor, but I assure you it is fully suppressed in all practicing engineers I know. When you think about it, fire is a very evocative phenomenon. Its dual nature (e.g., its ability to provide amazing benefits and to inflict great harm; its rarity and omnipresence; its use as a symbol for passion and for death) gives it a special significance to most humans. Those of us who study it in order to develop safe, clean, and effective systems that harness its power are perhaps even more sensitized to the lore and legend of fire than others who may take it for granted.

If you could have dinner with any thermal scientist in history, who would you choose?
I just took a trip to Paris where my son is attending university, and I noticed the names of 50 or more famous French scholars, authors, and scientists inscribed on the Eiffel tower. It was remarkable to see how many of them were “thermal scientists”. I had to narrow the field to just one, I would choose Carnot. Carnot’s most memorable contribution to science was his study of the laws of thermodynamics.

What’s the most important unanswered question in your field?
Turbulence and its impact on all fluid flow (including reactive flows like fireplace flames) is the biggest question still facing thermal scientists and engineers. Werner Heisenberg, the physicist after whom the “Uncertainty Principle” is named, is credited with the remark: “When I meet God, I am going to ask him two questions: Why relativity? And why turbulence? I really believe he will have an answer for the first.”

What is your favorite fictional depiction of your field?
I don’t watch it often, but I remember getting a big kick out of the television show “CSI” where the crime investigators use their brainpower as opposed to physical prowess. A lot of people I meet ask me about the CSI program when they learn I investigate fires and other accidents, and I beam a little bit when I tell them they have hit the nail on the head – investigating accidents is very much like investigating crimes.

What the most interesting human factors issue you’ve come across?
The most fascinating aspects have to do with cognition – i.e., perception and discernment. An academic subject that I once dabbled in superficially is the philosophy of epistemology. I see cognition as the physiological/psychological child of epistemology. When human factors scientists are able to show conclusively how certain types of visual, audible, and tactile inputs evoke unique and (relatively) predictable responses from humans, I have to say, as a lay-person in that field, it’s very enjoyable to be informed and enlightened by their work.

Dr. Martin is an engineering consultant regarding thermal issues particularly fires involving vehicles or equipment failures due to thermal combustion. Read more at http://www.martinthermal.com/

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