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Friction and Momentum — Good and Bad!


I’ve just come to realize that my career in research, advanced engineering and product development has been all about friction and how to deal with it–both positively and negatively.  I’ll bet you have faced some of the same issues.  1. There is mechanical friction between parts of machines, friction or resistance in electrical and electronics items, potential barriers and the need for catalysts to achieve the activation energy for chemical reactions.  2. As someone who has led teams of people, I am acutely aware of the friction among people that can hamper a team reaching a high level of productivity.  3. Finally, as a designer of computer based systems I have had to deal with Human Machine Interface (HMI) and I’ve recently come to appreciate that there is friction and resistance in this interface as well.  It seems, that friction is both positive and negative, as is the case for momentum.  Here are a few thoughts to consider.

Friction is most often considered a negative that produces wasteful heat.  We lubricate the parts of machines to keep them running smoothly and prevent friction from stopping them.  We use the lubricant to cool the parts of the machine and often have other coolers to remove heat from friction.  Yet, it is friction that is used positively on the brakes of a vehicle to bring it to a stop safely.  In this case, we want the friction of the brakes to overcome the momentum of the vehicle.

Electrical circuits are plagued by the equivalent of friction with resistance to the flow of current.  To get things moving really well, we have to create a vacuum or cool the circuits to incredibly low temperatures, removing all the frictional heat that is getting in the way of superconducting. And yet, removing all the resistance in an electrical circuit creates a short that prevents the circuit from working correctly.

In chemistry, I see two or three things that act like friction or resistance.  First is the potential barrier to the start of a chemical reaction.  We often need a catalyst to overcome the activation energy needed to get the reaction going.  Some of this activation energy is determined by the strong or weak bonds in the chemicals involved.  Then, once the reaction is going, the surface area acts like a frictional resistance to the speed of the chemical process.  Thus, we are now seeing nano-materials, that create immense surface area that we cannot see, being used to create better batteries and creating great opportunities for materials.  And yet, who does not want to be able to stop a runaway nuclear reaction from occurring by reducing the temperature of the reaction to stop it?  The latest development of small, modular nuclear reactors is premised on the idea that they are underground and water flows through gravity to stop the reaction.

In the area of creating high performing teams, I have often used the model of Forming–Storming–Norming–Performing.  You might think that friction among people is all bad, but I have learned that it is often necessary for people to go through that storming stage before they can trust each other and move forward.  It’s almost as if they need a certain amount of momentum and management encouragement along the way to keep them moving and get through that frictional stage.  If the team is going to climb a hill, first they need some energy to overcome the static friction that keeps them from moving.  Then they need positive momentum to keep them climbing that hill or they will fall back.  Friction can also be used to describe that person that resists change or is always giving the negative–the pessimist rather than the optimist.  Often the pessimist will say they are the realist.  Sounds pretty negative.  Yet, a CEO should not want only “yes” people around them.  They need to have a few people that will challenge them and make sure the decisions are being well thought out, planned and executed.  We don’t want people going over the cliff like a bunch of lemmings.

The transistor was invented just before I was born, but the first fully transistorized computer was done soon after my birth in 1954.  By the 1960’s, the mainframe computer had become a big thing–all puns intended.   When I was in high school and college, the Digital Equipment Corporation line of PDP mini computers were taking the world by storm.  In my first jobs in the mid-70’s I worked with various microcontrollers from Intel, Zilog, Motorola and other long-forgotten names.  I’ve worked with keypunch machines and talked with machines–though recently I was about to punch Siri on my iPhone when “she” refused to recognize something before I reset the cache.  What’s all this got to do with friction and momentum?  Well, there is certainly momentum in the use of computers and growth in their numbers.  Yet, it seems more like the computer trains us to what it wants for input and output (I’ve noticed the same thing between people and pets, where the pets seem to train the people in what the pet likes and dislikes and the people cater to the pet appropriately).  Some people resist using a computer and resist learning anything about them.  And mostly, that’s because the interface has friction that prevents it from meeting the ultimate goal at MIT of — INTUITIVELY OBVIOUS.

Here are three TED talks that caught my attention recently on the subject of Human Machine Interface.  If you have time for only one, choose the first one.

1.  Meet the robots for humanity

2.  A monkey that controls a robot with its thoughts. No, really.

3.  The rise of human-computer cooperation