The Twelve Engineers of Christmas

December 18, 2014

On the brink of the holiday break, mountains of work loom large before anyone can leave the office and enjoy a week of overindulgence and gift-wrapping bliss.

Your brain is probably already on vacation.

That’s the trouble, right? Instead of tackling a miles-long to-do list, you’re likely reading articles about what inflation has done to the cost of the “Twelve Days of Christmas.” And if you’re like me, those articles are the only way to actually remember all twelve days! (Trying to list them backwards, even with the repetitious nature of the song, always ends in switched days and desperate attempts to get to the “FIIIIVE GOOOOOLD RIIIIIINGS” part.)

So here’s a new approach: Think of how engineers spend those twelve days! There’s more engineering in swans-a-swimming than you might think.

First day of Christmas: A partridge in a pear tree

Partridges are traditional game birds in England, but here in the States, if you want to go hunting, you have the US Army Corps of Engineers to deal with. The USACE doesn’t just “build strong,” they also manage 12 million acres of land and waters across the country for public recreation and conservation. Go to Recreation.gov to find out which park is closest to you.

Second day of Christmas: Two turtle doves

Turtle doves and pigeons share the same bird family, Columbidae. There are many species within the family, but one obsolete North American pigeon has scientist Ben Novak working with genetic engineers to pioneer the field of “de-extinction.”

DNA from the last passenger pigeon (named Martha, who died in 1914 and was later taxidermied and displayed in the Smithsonian Institute’s Bird Hall ) could be combined with the DNA of a genetically similar pigeon. The result of The Long Now Foundation and the ancient DNA lab at U.C. Santa Cruz collaboration could be a scion for modern passenger pigeons.

Third day of Christmas: Three French hens

Food engineering is a discipline that demands a wealth of knowledge. Agricultural engineering, chemical engineering, mechanical engineering combined with microbiology and physical sciences are only some of the skills a food engineer needs to make food products and services cost-effective and safe. According to the US Department of Labor, food engineers were hard at work in the poultry industry last year. Their latest report on Injury and Illness states that occupational injuries and illnesses for poultry slaughter and processing workers is down from 4.9/100 workers in 2012 to 4.5/100 workers in 2013.

Fourth day of Christmas: Four calling birds

The “calling birds” of Christmas are easily assumed to be song birds in the US, but historians and bird aficionados say the English origin of the song likely references “colly” birds – birds that are as black as coal or blackbirds. But whether we’re talking canary or colly, it’s mining and geological engineers that actually deal with coal. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics the 2012 median pay for these engineers is $84,320 per year.

Fifth day of Christmas: Five gold rings

Five gold rings is a pretty flashy gift, and one the engineers working on NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope would love to get their hands on. They’d probably melt those rings down in order to guild their telescope’s 18 mirrors in microscopically-thin layers of gold. Gold is so good at reflecting infrared light that the mirrors on the Webb telescope are expected to be 100 times more powerful than the Hubble Space Telescope. Essentially, this new telescope can see back in time to the light from when galaxies formed 13.5 billion years ago.

Sixth day of Christmas: Six geese a laying

If you’ve ever worked or lived near a lake, you may have encountered a gaggle of geese. In contemporary America, geese are usually quite active when they come in contact with humans. In addition to “laying,” they also poop. A lot. And are sometimes aggressive. When this happens in public recreational areas, like Illinois’ Lake Shelbyville, it’s the USACE who gets to remove geese who pose health and safety risks to visitors.

Wind turbine engineers are also interested in geese, whose migratory patterns could have quite an impact on energy generation. Radar studies of bird migration in the UK started in 2007 and have found that geese and other migrating birds do not change their migration routes when wind farms are erected, rather they do their best to avoid the turbines.

Seventh day of Christmas: Seven swans a-swimming

Swans are harder to spot than geese in the US, but according to the USACE, you can find them in St. Louis, Missouri. The rare Trumpeter swan population in North America was greatly affected by early US settlers in the Midwest and was an endangered species as a result. Conservation efforts have protected Trumpeter swan breeding grounds and the population is once again on the rise. Biologists recorded more than 500 swans at the USACE Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary last year, but in January 2014 they found 900.

Eighth day of Christmas: Eight maids a-milking

Chemical engineers have long known that methyl ketones are a great way to flavor cheese (as well as scent essential oils and likely provide advanced biofuels.) Methyl ketones have been found in rue, tomatoes, insects and even microorganisms. But in 2012 they were actually created by the Department of Energy’s Joint BioEnergy Institute(JBEI) researchers from E. Coli bacteria. Today, genetic modifications have upped the ante: Now JBEI microbiologists can create 160 times the methyl ketones as they could in 2012. Bring on the cheese!

Ninth day of Christmas: Nine drummers drumming

Acoustic engineers really dig a raucous noise. British acoustic engineer Trevor Cox is the poster child of sound nerds, and has spent several years traveling the world with a microphone and a digital recorder. He published “The Sound Book,” this year, which documents his journey to find the “sonic wonders” of planet Earth. Don’t know where to vacation next year? Think about the “sound tourism” available at the beach, the desert or subterranean spaces.

Tenth day of Christmas: Ten pipers piping

Scotland may be known for kilted bagpipers, but there’s also a long history of engineering know-how that complements their musicianship. From Maxwell’s parti-di equations, which electrical engineers know and love, to the inventor of the toaster, (thanks for breakfast, Alan MacMasters) Scotland has a knack for engineering engineers. There’s even a Scottish Engineering Hall of Fame. This year’s inductees include John Rennie (civil engineer known for designing canals and bridges), Robert Stirling (inventor of the Stirling engine), Robert Napier (the “Father of Clyde Shipbuilding”) and Thomas Graham Brown (ultrasound machine pioneer).

Eleventh day of Christmas: Eleven ladies dancing

You may have noticed the huge media push to support girls joining STEM programs in school over the last few years, from the First Lady and Women in STEM to the Girls in STEM movement. This year, in Silicon Valley, where women and diversity are glaringly lacking, startups are creating software for companies looking to break up the boy’s club. Big companies like Yelp are looking to startups like Entelo, Inc. for software that will help them hire a more diverse workforce.

Twelfth day of Christmas: Twelve lords a-leaping

If one aims to be a leaping lord, isn’t it best to dress in a manner that facilitates the leaping part? That’s where the wearable sensor market comes in. Wearable sensors are used in athletic footwear and clothing to monitor fitness, health and detect temperature and movement, but also incorporate cutting edge technologies like stretchable electronics and flexible circuits, even conducting fabrics. The wearable sensor market is projected to grow to $654.16 Million before 2021, according to a research report published by MarketsandMarkets. Leaping lords are advised to invest now!