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Ask Emily Your Questions

ByTom MillerThe Secret Life of Scientists and EngineersThe Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers

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We’re pretty sure Emily Whiting could make your house fall down (at least, in the virtual world).

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So get smart and read her answers to some of your questions.

Q: Rod

What’s your favorite part when you are doing your work?

A: Emily Whiting

It’s difficult to pinpoint a favorite, but something I deeply appreciate about my work is that I get to use many different parts of my brain on a day-to-day basis. On a Monday I could be programming — adding new features to the software I’m developing, which is very logical. Then on Wednesday I might be researching a cathedral, or even dreaming up my own building designs, which is a creative process. I love that balance and broadness.

Q: Ms. Naymark’s Science Classes

Hi Emily,

My students liked watching the videos and loved the program where you can knock down what you just built. They had a few questions for you:

1) What is the difference between the architect and the engineer and how do your jobs work together?
2) What computer program do you use to create models of buildings?
3) What is your favorite place to rock climb?
4) Have you ever fallen or gotten hurt when climbing?
5) What is your favorite type of rock?
6) What is the most complex structure that seems to defy the rules?
7) Where was your favorite place to sing while you were in the choir?

Thanks for answering our questions!

A: Emily Whiting

Thanks for the great questions!

1) Your question is very related to my research. The central difference is that architects design the appearance of a building, while engineers design the supporting structure. There is a lot of team work between architects and engineers, but an important point is that the structural design happens after the architect has chosen an overall form. The structure is often not meant to be seen (think of a steel frame underneath a curvy facade). The aim of my research is to help architects design structurally efficient forms, so that the look and the supports are one and the same. Some top architects already do this, such as Santiago Calatrava who is known for his elegant bridges. Back in the age of Gothic architecture, architects were also engineers — the shapes they chose for windows and curved ceilings were both beautiful and structural.

2) I have been developing a specific program for my thesis using C++. Like most programming, it involves a lot of patient work. For the cathedral models shown in the videos, I use a 3D computer graphics technique called “procedural modeling” where the building is generated through a series of rules similar to grammar rules in language.

3) One of the most beautiful places I’ve climbed is Otter Cliff in Acadia National Park, Maine. I had a fantastic time visiting with the MIT Outing Club. The site is on the Northeast coastline, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. You arrive by rappelling from the top of the cliff down 110 ft to water level. Waves of water are lapping just meters away from your feet as you begin your climb back up the cliff. Gorgeous!

I also enjoy climbing indoors. One of my favorite gyms is in San Francisco’s Presidio Park. While on the walls, you can view scenery of not only the San Francisco Bay, but also the Golden Gate Bridge. What better inspiration than an engineering monument while you work on improving your efficient climbing moves?

4) I recently injured a ligament in my knee during a climb at the gym. It took around 2 months to recover. That was a relatively minor injury, but still a powerful reminder that our bodies are structures with limitations just like the beams and columns supporting a building. In this case I was attempting a maneuver that my muscles were too weak to withstand, resulting in higher stresses in my ligament (the medial collateral ligament to be exact). In retrospect I should have been more aware of where my weight was being distributed. I’ll be working on core-strength in the meantime (the foundation) to prevent it from happening again!

5) Granite is a great rock for climbing for its friction properties and the pattern of cracks that make good hand holds and foot holds. It’s also a hard rock that’s resistant to breakage. Compare this to, say, volcanic rock which can be extremely prone to crumbling. The Otter Cliff site I mentioned in question 3) is granite. Another type I enjoyed is the sandstone at Castle Rock State Park in California. There are some very unusual formations and caves that are great fun for climbing.

6) There are so many structures that bring one to awe. I particularly love examples like King’s College Chapel in Cambridge University where you walk inside, look up at the fan-vaulted ceiling, and can’t believe that heavy stone could produce such a graceful structure. But my favorite example has to be Antoni Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia because of how it was designed: Gaudi calculated the inclination of columns and walls using a model of inverted chains. You might recall the arch example I described in the video where an inverted chain makes the perfect stone arch — Gaudi applied this principle to an entire building using a network of chains and weights. His structures have a unique organic quality, and I found it an exciting surprise when I learned about the structural method that led to these shapes.

7) My favorite place to sing was definitely Chartres Cathedral in France. That was a real treat — apart from the magnificence visually, the acoustic qualities of its tall ceilings and long chamber made our voices project more than I’d experienced anywhere else. For cathedrals like Chartres the reverberation time can be over 10 seconds (that’s the time from the creation of a sound until it dies back down to silence). It is a great place for slow-moving chords like choral music, and it let us appreciate the harmonies of the pieces we were singing in a new way.