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Reach for the sky with the science guy

Blog post   •   Aug 05, 2014 04:46 GMT

The challenge facing the participants in the TOMODACHI Toshiba Science & Technology Leadership Academy is a big one: to plan a resilient smart community of tomorrow.  On Sunday, they got a taste of some of the problems they have to overcome with briefings on the devastation left by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in northeast Japan, and Hurricane Sandy, the superstorm that hit the eastern seaboard of the U.S. in 2012. There was also a visit to a life safety center, and introductions to engineering skills and on defining problems smart communities have to solve.

On Monday, the problem-solving got real. Working in four teams, with the support of teachers, the students had to use straws and tape to build a tower, turning designs they worked on last Saturday into models; models that had to bear loads, in this case a Koinobori, a wind sock in the shape of a carp, withstand winds simulated by a fan, and survive earthquakes generated by a vibration tray.

Anybody designing a tower needs a good mechanical engineer, and the TOMODACHI Toshiba Academy had one on hand. After the first three judges for the tower building were announced, the lights were lowered, the door thrown open, music blared, and Bill Nye, the Science Guy, came bounding into the room to huge applause.  For the American students, it was ”almost unbelievable” and a “crazy moment”, when the guy on TV who’d encouraged their interest in science was suddenly with them, advising them on how to handle wind drag and build load-bearing strength into their towers.

After that, it was hands on and start building—and realize how difficult it is to convert ideas in your head and confident lines on paper into designs that hold together and pass destruction testing. But from slow beginning, through intense discussion and concentrated teamwork, the designs took shape and rose from the desks, ready for the beady eyes of the judges.

Towers continued as the theme of the day. In the afternoon, the Academicians jumped on a bus to travel across the shitamachi, Tokyo’s old heartland, but now home to Japan’s most modern structure, Skytree, the world’s tallest free-standing broadcasting tower.

At 634 meters high, with observation platforms at 350m and 450m, Skytree is designed to withstand everything nature can throw at it, including once in 2,000 years winds and powerful earthquakes. Just how it does that was explained by Mr. Atsuo Konishi, the tower’s structural designer, in a fascinating presentation in which he explained both the engineering challenges that had to be overcome and the aesthetics of the structure, including the tower’s gentle curve, which follows the line of a Japanese sword.

Just as fascinating was the view. Skytree’s Toshiba elevators carry visitors to the first observation tower at a maximum speed of 600m a minute, in only 50 seconds. Once there, stupendous vistas in all direction show rivers winding their way to Tokyo Bay, and the city marching away to the distant mountains that fringe Tokyo. A must-see experience for anybody visiting Tokyo.