Giant Small Stride

Yesterday, my research took another step forward and another conundrum unraveled. I’m using strain gages on my rock samples to determine at what internal stresses they fail. Locating the correct strain gages, terminal pads, epoxy, and wires presented its own adventure, but now I need instrumentation to register and interpret the electrical impulses coming from the strain gages.

My friend, and resident all-things-electrical specialist, Ted stepped in and with a whirl of activity second only to Mary Poppins, unloaded his wheeled suitcase of electrical gadgetry: volt meter, soldering iron, cable, connectors, wire strippers, and implements I have never seen nor can I name.

The work done in the pressure vessel manifests as electrical impulses, which need to be registered, interpreted, translated, and recorded by the computer. Standing in my way was a Wheatstone bridge and a logic board. Several options were bandied about and I did my best to register, interpret, translate and record Ted’s enthusiastic verbal impulses.

Ted tends to skip over steps (and sentences and explanations) because they serve only as an impedance to the end result. That will be my one and only electrical engineering quip for this post, I promise. Despite his hopscotching, I assembled enough from the conversation to get what I needed to make the next giant small stride forward.

We settled on creating the cable/connection needed for the work done. New experiments require modifying conventional equipment because, well, honestly that is just what you do in a lab when you solve problems on the fly. In simplest terms, research is coming up with a problem or process that has not been done before (some might include improving processes, but that is a conversation for another post) and using whatever equipment you have handy to get it done.

Since equipment cannot be designed for every yet to be conceived problem that some engineer or researcher is just panting to solve, you take stock of what is available, consider safety, pray for money, and proceed. Some researchers just jump in and keep moving forward until they hit a problem, then back up and try the next path until the next dead end. That method causes me to tear my hair out.

I much prefer discussing several possible alternatives, then writing out a skeleton procedure and looking for (read: eliminating) problems before we get there. Since Ted and I have wildly different problem-solving procedures it made for a lively afternoon. Copious amounts of black dark roast contributed to the conviviality.

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Thus, I found myself soldering thin wires to a DB25 connector. Soldering is fine, delicate work and my first attempt bore an uncanny resemblance to a popsicle stick and Elmer’s glue art project I created in pre-school. One can only stand in awe that as a 4-year old I possessed the foresight to expertly train for doctoral research.

My singed finger tips and glutinous mass of solder aside, I had fun. We did not have a lab bench, so we used a stool for work. Since the lab does not have air conditioning, my parents donated a box fan a while ago and we cranked it up. I typed a simple write up to document where we started and where we finished.

This weekend I will finish wiring up my Wheatstone bridge and write up my next procedure. When I started on this adventure, I believe the challenge would be bringing my rocks to failure. In fact, that is the easy part. The unexpected art project of modifying and assembling equipment to conduct the research makes me as giddy as a 4-year-old with a gold star on her popsicle stick cabin.

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