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Shrink The Targets

We can’t defend everything. So we should take steps that protect against both terrorism and natural disasters

8 min read
Illustration by Brian Stauffer
Illustration: Brian Stauffer

Civilized society is at far greater risk from natural disasters and industrial accidents than from terrorism, yet we behave as if it were the other way around. We spend billions on unproven technical remedies for imagined terrorist threats while skimping on known methods of mitigating the effects of hurricanes, floods, and toxic-waste spills, which occur with remarkable regularity and predictability. We should concentrate instead on defending against these more frequent and disastrous threats. By thus identifying our worst vulnerabilities and reducing them, we would reduce the size of the terrorists’ targets as well.

Our present efforts depend on bureaucratic organizations, but we should not expect too much from them. Two decades ago, in a study of industrial accidents, I sought to show that any organizational solution to a human problem that is complex enough to be interesting will necessarily be imperfect. Stated that way, my assertion might have seemed unobjectionable. Yet I noticed that people would always ask why no one had prevented a particular problem—typically the last one in a chain, hence the “proximate” cause of the disaster. For example, in the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, in 1986, the blame was placed on those who failed to take into account the chilled O-ring that was the proximate cause of the explosion. Similarly, the company that neglected to trim tree branches in Ohio shouldered the blame for the shorted power lines that started a cascade of failures that plunged much of the eastern United States and Canada into darkness in the summer of 2003.

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IEEE President’s Note: Looking to 2050 and Beyond

The importance of future-proofing IEEE

4 min read
Photo of K. J. Ray Liu

What will the future of the world look like? Everything in the world evolves. Therefore, IEEE also must evolve, not only to survive but to thrive.

How will people build communities and engage with one another and with IEEE in the future? How will knowledge be acquired? How will content be curated, shared, and accessed? What issues will influence the development of technical standards? How should IEEE be organized to be most impactful?

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The Device That Changed Everything

Transistors are civilization’s invisible infrastructure

2 min read
A triangle of material suspended above a base

This replica of the original point-contact transistor is on display outside IEEE Spectrum’s conference rooms.

Randi Klett

I was roaming around the IEEE Spectrum office a couple of months ago, looking at the display cases the IEEE History Center has installed in the corridor that runs along the conference rooms at 3 Park. They feature photos of illustrious engineers, plaques for IEEE milestones, and a handful of vintage electronics and memorabilia including an original Sony Walkman, an Edison Mazda lightbulb, and an RCA Radiotron vacuum tube. And, to my utter surprise and delight, a replica of the first point-contact transistor invented by John Bardeen, Walter Brittain, and William Shockley 75 years ago this month.

I dashed over to our photography director, Randi Klett, and startled her with my excitement, which, when she saw my discovery, she understood: We needed a picture of that replica, which she expertly shot and now accompanies this column.

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Designing Fuel Cell Systems Using System-Level Design

Modeling and simulation in Simulink and Simscape

1 min read
Designing Fuel Cell Systems Using System-Level Design

Design and simulate a fuel cell system for electric mobility. See by example how Simulink® and Simscape™ support multidomain physical modeling and simulation of fuel cell systems including thermal, gas, and liquid systems. Learn how to select levels of modeling fidelities to meet your needs at different development stages.