Monday, March 19, 2012

Don't get carried away by that boxfish!

In the coral reefs of the Pacific and Indian Oceans lives a most peculiar boxfish. In order to deal with the changing currents, this fish has developed a very unique shape. Unlike the long, streamlined shape characteristic of other fish Ostracion cubicus has a small face, and a box like body with relatively small fins and tail. Despite outward appearances, the boxfish astounded researchers by its speed and agility.

Air foil
The fish was noted to have a drag coefficient of 0.2 (which is comparable to an air foil) which astounded researchers given its unusual shape. Furthermore, the dorsal and anal fins which propel the fish are way off the central axis of the body. Puzzled, researchers studied the movement of beads around these fish. They discovered that boxfish have keel fins at the edges of their body which establish and amplify little vortices tightly around the body towards the more powerful posterior fins.

These facts probably would not be well known if they were not adopted by luxury automobile maker Mercedes-Benz. A concept car that they produced had a drag coefficient of 0.19 and when combined with other fuel saving measures, achieves over 70 mpg. Although the car never hit full production (my guess—aesthetics?), I still find it admirable and humbling that once again the world’s best design teams learn something from a humble fish.

It would have been understandable if Mercedes-Benz had modeled a car after the faster animals in the ocean. For example, various automakers have modeled the front of SUV’s to mimic the proportion of dolphin noses. The front of some ships also exhibit these proportions in order to reduce drag.

It’s important to note that the boxfish is adapted to the turbulent flow of coral reefs. It would be foolish to think that such a shape would be as suited in the open ocean or with stronger currents that aren’t damped by coral.  Mercedes-Benz was able to achieve something incredible with a box design.  However, they probably could have done even better had they adopted more established streamlined profiles.  Likewise, the danger is to take a sensational idea and try to apply it too generally—and I am definitely guilty of this. Therefore when you do receive well intentioned advice, it is important to not forget the accompanying conditions and assumptions.

To say it another way, take advice with a grain of salt. The first recorded use of this phrase was in Pompey 77 A.D. Supposedly an antidote to poison was to be taken with a small amount of salt to be effective. Likewise, it is important that you supply the salt and seasoning with which to evaluate the ideas and advice you encounter. Remember, opinions are abundant; talk is cheap.

1. Do you give unsolicited advice to other people? Do you preface by explaining the circumstances of your experiences and opinions?
2. When seeking advice or a solution to a problem you are facing, do you look for people who have been through similar circumstances?

1 comment:

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