McCormick Magazine

From smart machines to "artscience"

Recent books by and about McCormick faculty cover the breadth of engineering and design


Don NormanBridging the human-machine divide
We assume technology will always make our lives easier, and in many cases it has. Yet as machines get "smarter," we often get more frustrated. We don't like our car navigation systems because they don't let us give any input on the route. We don't like "smart" buildings that make decisions for us, like how far the blinds should be pulled and what type of lighting should be turned on. We don't like them because in those situations we lose control.

So how can humans and machines communicate effectively? Don Norman, the Allen K. and Johnnie Cordell Breed Senior Professor in Design, professor of electrical engineering and computer science, and codirector of the Segal Design Institute, addresses this in his recently published book The Design of Future Things.

The book is the latest everyday design book by Norman, who has been called the "don of design." It received accolades from national media outlets, and Norman was even featured in a New York Times science article headlined "Why Nobody Likes a Smart Machine."

The book focuses on the ever-increasing role of automation in our homes and cars — how it's done badly and what can be done to make it right. "The proper way to provide for smooth interaction between people and intelligent devices is to enhance the coordination and cooperation of both parties, people and machines," Norman writes. "But those who design these systems often don't understand this. How is a machine to judge what is or is not important, especially when what is important in one situation may not be in another?"

Norman writes that the future of design lies in the development of smart devices that drive our cars and clean our floors. The challenge is to create these machines so that they support our lives and add to our pleasure and convenience without adding stress. That will require combining the rigor of business and engineering with the understanding of social interactions and the aesthetics of the arts.

"In the past, we had to think about how people would interact with technology," he writes. "Today, we also need to take the machine's point of view…. In the past, we merely used our product. In the future, we will be in more of a partnership with them as collaborators, bosses, and, in some cases, servants and assistants."

Cate and Hal BrinsonEngineering a family project
It could very well be the first father-daughter mechanics book ever.

Cate Brinson, the Jerome B. Cohen Professor of Engineering and chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, has coauthored a new book, Polymer Engineering Science and Viscoelasticity: An Introduction, with her father, Hal Brinson. "I'm pretty sure there are father-son books, but this could be the only father-daughter," she says. "But I don't know how you verify its uniqueness."

First of its kind or not, writing the book was no easy feat — it took about 10 years and work on three different continents to make it come together. Cate and her father, a recently retired mechanical engineering professor from the University of Houston who also attended Northwestern, had talked about writing a book together for some time. Both taught advanced courses in polymers and viscoelasticity and shared notes, and since Hal had always wanted to create a book out of his notes, why not do it together?

"We would sometimes get into arguments about how you're supposed to explain a concept," she says. "And then it would turn out that we're both right, just different perspectives. The text benefits from this combined viewpoint."

They worked on the book little by little through the years, with Hal coming up to Illinois for the summer, Cate going down to Texas for a time during the winter, and Hal traveling to Germany while Cate was there on sabbatical. A final deadline from the publisher meant Cate was stuck putting the finishing touches on it during a flight to China.

Despite all the work, Cate says she would recommend that her peers write a book with a parent. "You listen to each other in a depth that maybe you never reach with a typical colleague. Your relationship grows. And what a great family legacy!"

The book is likely too technical for the lay audience but could be used by working scientists and engineers who never studied polymer behavior in detail or in advanced undergraduate or graduate courses on materials. The book covers the physics of polymer behavior from a molecular level as well as viscoelasticity, a mathematical description of how polymers behave under mechanical loads and with varying temperature.

Julio M. OttinoMixing art and science
When Julio M. Ottino, dean of the McCormick School, developed his well-known theory on chaos and mixing, he didn't start with experiments and equations — he started with a painting. That inspiration — the combination of both artistic and scientific techniques for innovation — is the hallmark of an "artscientist," the term Harvard author David Edwards uses for Ottino and others who traverse the interface of art and science — including composers, scientists, and museum directors — in his new book ArtScience: Creativity in the Post-Google Generation.

In the book, Edwards highlights the origins of Ottino's creativity through his childhood and upbringing in Argentina. It recounts his first gallery exhibition of paintings and sculptures, his subsequent work combining his passion for both art and science, and how the interrelation between the two led to breakthrough research.

During his exploration of mixing, Ottino painted a watercolor that depicted how he believed fluid mixing worked. He looked at the painting every day as he continued his research. The mixing of art and science led to his discovery of chaotic mixing and folding — which appeared on the covers of Nature and Scientific American. His well-known book on the matter, The Kinematics of Mixing: Stretching, Chaos, and Transport, is illustrated with his art.

Ottino's belief in the importance of the role of art and design in the scientific process is reflected in the continued prominence of design at McCormick. In the past two years McCormick has launched the Segal Design Institute, which sponsors the Design:Chicago™ seminar to connect design-related activities throughout the Chicago area. McCormick also held a National Academy of Engineering annual meeting titled "Design: Innovation and Engineering."

"We see design as a pathway to innovation," says Ottino, who is also a Distinguished Robert R. McCormick Professor and the Walter P. Murphy Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering. "In many ways engineering can be seen as more of an art than a science. Engineering and art both seek to break paradigms in order to see things that haven't been seen before They are both more about creation than unveiling."

At the core of the book is the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration — the idea that multiple viewpoints are imperative in the search for solutions to society's greatest problems. "Analysis and creativity should complement one another," Ottino says. "Solving important problems — such as global health, energy, and the environment — will require strengths in both areas."

—Emily Ayshford and Kyle Delaney