Blog: Rocco Gaudenzi

Rocco Gaudenzi talks about the challenges involved in taking a compex project from concept to completion.

Things are always more complicated than they seem

Although this might appear to many as a triviality, I still want to say it: things turn out to be more complicated than they seem beforehand. In recent months, I have been working on the design of the mechanical "clockwork" that will render our experiment possible. It is a mechanism that should rapidly and flawlessly release the three-millimeter graphene solar sail in microgravity within a vacuum chamber. Aware of the complexity and the fine-tuning that the experiment demands in order to be successful, in the initial phase I strove to account for all the possible details of the design. This meant accurately considering in my mind the experimental objectives and their optimal fulfilment in accordance with the unavoidable constraints. Just to name the most prominent, that every single piece, glue, screw of the setup has to endure sudden accelerations of 100g and resist a baking temperature of above 100 °C.

While actually putting on paper what I had designed in my mind, I realised of a couple of hidden constrains that I had forgotten. How was this possible? They were there, before me. Well, I have learned that our minds cannot possibly embrace all the details of a complex clockwork at once. That is why pencil, paper and rulers have been invented. Constant discussion with your peers is crucial to see all the hidden aspects of the problem you are considering. And if you think you have done enough, you are probably wrong. Like a game of chess requires you to ponder not only the next move, but also predict in advance all the possibilities that the move can open, in the design of a delicate experiment you have to accommodate the constraints within your objectives, but also imagine all that could potentially go wrong and take measures against it beforehand.

What I have said so far concerns sitting and designing and not yet actually materializing that design. The difference between these two actions is the same as that between saying and doing. "An ocean lies in between them", as the Italian saying goes. I confirmed once again that the saying is actually fairly accurate. Armed with my drawings and a thrill of enthusiasm, I biked to Mr. Mouthaan (at Delfinix), our faithful machining man, to see my creation come to life. I had thought the discussion would last few minutes; just the time to instruct him on few details. It took two hours of animated discussion and a good deal of on-the-spot modifications. The reason? Matter – and what you can carve out of it – is constrained by its own deep laws, which Mr. Mouthaan's experience knows and I was (partly) ignoring.

To make a long story short, step by step, after many more changes and few dead ends – because the reserve of the unexpected is always full – the monster has actually come to life, in all its parts. And the joy of seeing it "alive" is proportional to the troubles that it has created. I breathed a long distending breath. Now the real test comes: assembling and harmoniously coordinating the whole clockwork: the release mechanism, the laser and the camera. Our "space odyssey" has not yet come to an end. Stay tuned.


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Publishing date: 27 November 2017 21:42