I am taking a course on combustion this semester, which is a lot less exciting than it sounds. Sort of.

Combustion is one of those topics where you use incendiary language (ha-ha) to describe phenomena that end up being duller than their advertising. Explosion limits? The time it takes for a fuel mixture to ignite under certain conditions (like those kerosene-soaked rags you put in the trash can in the sun). Combustion bomb? Yep, it's a sphere with two windows where you get to watch very small explosions develop very symmetrically.

But enough ragging on the hype. It is a very interesting class, nonetheless. One of the biggest takeaways so far is the power of approximate modeling. We often come upon complicated terms, but we very rarely carry them forward. Why? Because we don't need to. How come?

This question draws the line between an experienced experimental engineer and an overeager graduate student theorist. All of the math that comes out of the combustion analysis is valid, but not all of it is needed. Here is where the engineer can come in and say "It never does that", "It can't do that", or "We've very reliably seen it do this", and form a reality-based judgment on exactly how good the approximation needs to be.

The role of the engineer is to deploy technology. Yes, he develops it, too, but he does that so that, at the end of the day, somebody can use it. That somebody wants to know one thing: does it work as advertised, all the time? That is the question that the experimentalist can answer and the theorist cannot. That is perhaps the biggest lesson taught in combustion.

Math, Science, Engineering, and Education

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