Mathematics: The language of the plant engineer

Sept. 20, 2011

It seems axiomatic that mathematics is the language of nature. Sooner or later, almost every observed natural phenomenon goes through a life cycle of its own. Consider lightning, for example. First, we observe it with pure awe. Mankind can be rather superstitious and inquisitive in that regard. Then, we try to figure out what the heck it's made of. Think about the Ben Franklin legend. Then, we try to measure and quantify it. All of a sudden, nature intersects mathematics. Sometimes we need to invent units of measure for this purpose.

It seems axiomatic that mathematics is the language of nature. Sooner or later, almost every observed natural phenomenon goes through a life cycle of its own. Consider lightning, for example. First, we observe it with pure awe. Mankind can be rather superstitious and inquisitive in that regard. Then, we try to figure out what the heck it's made of. Think about the Ben Franklin legend. Then, we try to measure and quantify it. All of a sudden, nature intersects mathematics. Sometimes we need to invent units of measure for this purpose. Consider the legacy of people such as Andre-Marie Ampere, Alessandro Volta, Anders Celsius, Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit, James Prescott Joule, and the many others who have had to improvise some unit of measure so many years ago to document their research into natural phenomena.

These days the plant engineer must be familiar with many of the units of measure that are relevant to the task of keeping the country’s mines, mills, and factories humming along. It might be instructive to explore a resource called “A Dictionary of Units of Measurement,” which was prepared by Russ Rowlett, director with the Center for Mathematics and Science Education at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

If you’re reading some user manual, operating instructions, or research results from outside the country and come across some unit of measure you don’t recognize, this is the place to go for an explanation.

While we’re on the subject, sometimes it’s necessary to convert some unit of measure into something more recognizable. For example, you learn that the maximum pressure some device can tolerate is given in pascals. If you want to know what that implies but using a friendlier unit of measure, you should seriously consider getting your hands on “Convert For Windows,” totally free downloadable software available from Josh Madison on his website.

I’ve used it regularly for years. Sometimes a submitted article uses a strange unit of measure. That software tool is the easiest way to convert those unfamiliar units into the traditional English units before we publish the piece.

Is it any wonder that exclusive use of the metric system might make a lot of things we do just a bit easier?

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