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Adding a Degree of Uncertainty

by Anne Corwin

May 12, 1999

Well, I guess my last journal was NOT the final chapter. Since the Wright Flyer test ended, all kinds of things have been going on at NASA, and, as usual, I've tried to get myself in on as many of them as possible.

One of my new projects is actually related to the Wright Flyer but may end up having other applications as well. I'm learning a new programming language based on graphics. There is a program called LabVIEW that is used here at NASA to collect and evaluate data from wind tunnel tests. It's really neat; I wish I could show the program to all of you so you could get a clearer picture of what I am talking about. I'll try to explain it as best I can. If you have ever used a drawing program, you have probably seen a tool bar or box over on the side of the screen where you can choose different "art supplies". Well, in LabVIEW there is a blank screen (at first) and a tool bar but instead of having art tools it has things like plus and minus signs, little boxes to put numbers in, and charts that you can put your own data into. If you want to add two numbers, you "connect" them to the back of a plus sign and connect an empty box to the front of the plus sign. When you click on an arrow that runs the program, the sum of those two numbers appears in the box. You connect all the program elements with something called a "wiring tool." It's basically like connecting wires in real life, only it's on a screen.

(number goes in)------> 1--
                                    |  + -- 3   <-----(sum appears here)
(number goes in)------> 2--
Of course, most of the uses of this program at NASA are more complicated than adding one and two, but I thought that would be a good example by which to clarify the nature of the program. What I am working on is a program that will search through the data obtained from the Wright Flyer test (angle, force, velocity, and pressure readings, etc.) and then show what would happen if a degree of uncertainty was added to a measurement.

Uncertainty is a very important thing to keep in mind when dealing with scientific data of any sort. When you get a reading from a machine, you want to know that the information you are getting is actually the information you are seeking. For instance, if you were seeing how fast a person could ride on a bike, you wouldn't just take their speed no matter what the situation was and say that you had accurate data. Someone would appear to be able to ride faster if they were going downhill and/or the wind was blowing them along. The wind and the slope of the hill would be sources of uncertainty in this case because they make it difficult to tell what the person's actual riding ability is. This program I am working on will allow different sources of uncertainty to be put into the Wright Flyer data so we can see how the data we actually got might have been affected by such things. Since the AIAA is actually trying to build a replica that will fly, it is crucial to be as careful as possible when figuring out what the data obtained during the NASA wind tunnel test represents.

In addition to my data analysis program, I am also continuing to work on my database program that I have been doing since last July. I am also working on a team that is putting together a CD-ROM about the NASA wind tunnels so that people who might want to test their technology here can get an idea of what we have to offer. It's fun working on teams that do projects--talking about the ideas and watching them come together. I never thought I'd enjoy making flow charts, but here I have one huge one sitting on my desk that is almost as big as I am (well, I'm actually pretty short, but still...), and I'm quite happy with it. It's so cool to see something on paper exactly the way I had it structured in my head...it really helps with planning. And of course it makes me feel that I'm somehow contributing to the order in the Universe. :)

I am still going to school (of course) and this quarter I am taking calculus (there are 5 classes in calculus and I'm in the fourth), Properties of Materials (a class in which you learn about metals, plastics, and other materials: what they are made of, what they are used for, what are their strengths and weaknesses), Physics 4C (the third level of physics out of four), and American Government. I've been having a lot of tests lately: one last Thursday, one Monday, and two today. Tonight is my last one for a while and though I enjoy the challenge it will be nice to have the tests over with. I'm getting pretty excited because I'm almost done at the school I go to now: De Anza College. De Anza only has classes for the first two years of college, so in order to finish my degree I'll have to transfer into a four-year college. I would like to do that this coming winter. Once I transfer I will be living away from home, which I have never done before. A little scary but quite exciting. It's amazing how time goes by so quickly; I guess I never really believed I'd become a "grownup." I always felt (and still feel) so young. However, I've talked to people in their seventies who claim to feel like teenagers, so I'm sure my feeling is pretty normal. :)

Well, that's it for now, but I promise I'll try to write more. I'm supposed to do a chat on Wednesday, May 19 at 11:30 a.m. so if anyone has any more specific questions or just want to say "hi," please sign up and drop in! I love answering people's questions and talking about what I do here. Hope to see you there!

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