How I play with Lego grown up

Research Institute by Lego
Research Institute by Lego

Last month the company Lego released their Research Institute set (conceived by geoscientist Ellen Kooijman to promote science careers for women). The set features a woman chemist, a woman astronomer, and a woman archaeologist. The set sold out on the first day (online and in-store).  I managed to pick up a set though to support the message of promoting women in sciences. The set is challenging and fun. However, I wish they would have included a woman fire engineer in the set (they did propose to include an electrical engineer in the concept stage of the set and arguably the chemist could be considered a chemical engineer). However,  I can modify and create. Maybe I will re-create a scene where one of my favorite engineers of all time, Margaret Law, performs fire experiments as she did in the 1960s at the Fire Research Station (future blog entry).

Vintage fire hall by Lego
Vintage fire hall by Lego

I find there are a lot of engineers and architects I come across (men and women) who are embracing Lego sets these days. Quite often when I go into offices, I always see the  Lego Architecture sets displayed on the book shelf’s of my colleagues.  These sets are great for stress relief after a hectic day. They are great to ponder things over. And they are visibly pleasing in the corner of an office. These sets are no longer merely childern’s toys, but something educational for all ages. I take things further though. Recently I purchased the 2200 plus piece vintage fire hall set (naturally – vintage and fire) and began assembling it (pictured) . As a scientist, I question;  ‘What makes my Lego fit together so well?’ So a while back I decided to investigate just that using a Scanning Electron Microscope.  You may remember this from a previous blog where I challenged the reader to identify several materials (concrete, a steel and a plastic- the ‘plastic’ being lego) as mystery Scanning Electron Microscope images. For the Lego, I wanted to measure out the precision of a Lego piece to the micro-metre and get an idea just how snug they connect (pictured below) and what was going on at the microscopic level of these tiny interlocking bricks.

Mystery #2
Lego at 800 x
Lego at 57x. The gray scale is typical of unprocessed SEM imaging
Lego at 57 x

The lettering was most interesting (the letter E is blown up and pictured left). But in general the indents on the piece were precise to the micro-metre. I have been told that the tolerance of Lego is actually up to 2 microns.

Now things I wonder next. Could having too many Lego in a home be a fuel load hazard for a fire?  Giving that Lego is said to be made of Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (anything with sytrene can be nasty toxicity wise when heated) I think I would rather avoid doing any high temperature tests for now. Instead, I could look into the compressive strength of Lego answering how tall can I make lego….but that has been done.

I guess some toys we never grow out of….

National Personnel Records Center Fire of 1973 – Why its news today

 (Photo courtesy ourtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration, Preservation Programs at Saint Louis.)
National Personnel Records Center fire of 1973 (Photo courtesy courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration, Preservation Programs at Saint Louis.)

In 1956, a National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) building was constructed in St Louis to hold military personnel records. The upper floor of this building caught fire on July 12th 1973. After a 22 hour fire the roof of the structure (made of prestressed concrete) suffered a 30% collapse. Ultimately the upper floor was removed post-fire. Today the building stands but remains vacant while its future fate is decided. To meet storage standards, the NPRC has since moved to a new building in 2011. While this presents an interesting historical case study from a structural fire point of view, from a purely forensics point of view there is an equally interesting case study that is still on going over 41 years to this day.

During the fire approximately 1/3rd of the over 50 million records stored were destroyed. However, some records (though badly damaged from fire and water) were salvaged (about 6.5 million).  Because these records have importance for federal entitlements (for example medical and education) as well as genealogy and historical research, there is a clear need to salvage information from them. To date the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) Preservation lab (Saint Louis Preservation Division) works to recover information from these burnt records . And I find their forensic efforts a fascinating use of available technology.

Record recovery (Photo courtesy courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration, Preservation Programs at Saint Louis.)
Record recovery. Members of NARA have been kind to provide photos of some of the work they do  (Photo courtesy courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration, Preservation Programs at Saint Louis.)

The Preservation Lab, currently experiments with infrared filters on cameras. The burnt ink shows up differently against a burnt paper backdrop because ink burns differently than paper does. Infra-red filters are used to create a contrast between the ink and paper, and with simple graphics software like Photoshop the image can be manipulated to help show what the naked eye can not. Of course the lab investigates other methods of information recovery such as new technologies (ie. sub-fibre scanning) or more detective style recovery (tracing requested records through other means). They also deal with methods for restoring the damaged documents and digitization.  You can find more information on their efforts here.

This forensic effort reminds us of yet another case study of a fire where  effects are not just realized immediately after, but even decades later.  I encourage all readers to look into the efforts by this group when they have the time, its quite interesting work they are doing.

The Fire of Beccles, November 1586

Part the History of fire sciences and technology project that I have been working on the last two years involves digitizing/archiving old documents related to fire sciences and technology. When I say old, I mean anything from 1920 all the way back to roman times. While some of these older documents speak of new ways to scientifically understand fire behavior, most only provide information of people’s perceptions and vague but the beginnings of understanding of fire engineering and dynamics.

Beccles market town fire
Beccles market town fire

For example, many digitized pamphlets from the 1500s describe fires that destroyed large parts of cities. These pamphlets’ authors typically accept that fires were a necessary instrument of a divine plan.  The pamphlets  though provide information to the beginnings of the study of fire engineering and dynamics as a science, especially in regards to incombustible and/or combustible construction techniques.

I share the following pdf copy of one of the older documents digitized for the above project (slightly restored for initial posting). The file may be downloaded in full here.

This manuscript authorship is accredited to T.D (Thomas Deloney). The document describes the Beccles market town fire that occurred November 1586. The fire ultimately destroyed over 80 buildings (there does not seem to be much information about life loss or injuries that I could find) and caused 20k£ damages (easily over 5 million+ £ in today’s dollars). Interestingly, the article is one of the few from this time period which shows an illustration. This image is reproduced below. As an aside, I find it interesting that the image  illustrates smoke, where often in today’s illustrations of fire in media often neglect to draw smoke.

Please feel free to message me if there you have any questions about this project or the Beccles fire (john.gales@carleton.ca).