Saturday, April 18, 2009

win-max = fn(η-min)

St. Olaf Professor of Physics Jason Engbrecht said you'll want to see this "because obscenely complicated machines are cool."

St. Olaf was not only the only liberal arts school in the competition, it was also the only school without an engineering program.

The annual competition aims to bring to life Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Rube Goldberg's drawings of complicated machines and gadgets that accomplish simple tasks. Using as many whimsical, counterintuitive steps as possible, the machines must complete a task determined each year by contest organizers. The contest is sponsored by the Theta Tau engineering fraternity (at Purdue) and rewards machines that most effectively combine creativity with inefficiency and complexity.

This year's task was to replace an incandescent light bulb with a more energy-efficient light-emitting design. It took 239 steps to turn off an incandescent light and turn on dozens of LED lights spelling "St. Olaf."

Team members built a record player from scratch that, as it spins, allows lasers to fire through pre-drilled holes. The lasers are picked up by light sensors, which trigger several other steps and eventually enable a gate to open and release a ball.

The team also constructed a Gauss rifle, a mechanism that uses a magnetic chain reaction to launch a metal ball at a very high speed, and a simple harmonic oscillator, a system that employs simple harmonic motion and magnetic induction to trigger the start of a car moving along a track. They even turned an ice auger into an Archimedes' screw that caught pool balls and took them from the machine's lower level to an elevated track.

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