By Jessica L. Tozer
For a scientist, life is a series of questions just waiting to be answered.
How we’re connected, how things work, why they’re here… These are things that humans have been trying to figure out since the Neanderthals began to drool. Elaine Oran seeks her understanding of the universe through the perspective of science.
Dr. Elaine Oran is the Senior Scientist for Reactive Flow Physics, affiliated with the Laboratory for Computational Physics and Fluid Dynamics at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington DC. Like many physicists, Dr. Oran uses equations and numbers to analyze questions of existence and bring the answers to life, so to speak.
So what does that mean, exactly?
“Basically, I study fluid motion, fluid dynamics. I study the motions and the behavior of gases and liquids and plasmas. More specifically, I solve rather complex sets of equations, usually on large computers, and these describe dynamics.”
Tell us a little bit about fluid motion and dynamics, and how it applies to you.
“My specialty that flow with some kind of reactions and turbulence. There are really three different sorts of reactions that we look at. One is chemical reactions. That’s what drives engines — car engines and propulsion devices. There are atomic reactions; the Earth’s upper atmosphere is an example. Then there are thermonuclear reactions; the sort that we look at in exploding stars.”
So how does understanding the mechanics of an exploding star help the Department of Defense?
“In my research I try to understand how explosions occur, and this means I want to know how the chemical or other types of reactions interact with the fluids to release energy.”
“The Navy – and the DOD in general – is very interested in a number of issues related to the general properties of explosions, controlling them or avoiding them. They’re interested in both how to avoid unwanted explosions or intense chemical reactions and how to create them in a controlled way. If we understand this, we can avoid dangerous situations. We could also make more efficient and perhaps even cleaner engines.”
When it comes to your research, what question or questions are you most excited to answer?
“At the moment the most interesting question to me has to do with turbulent reacting flows and trying to define the controlling processes. It seems very likely that many of the usual classical theories are not at all complete. And so when you find something where there’s a gaping hole in knowledge, that’s kind of where I like to dive in. Right now we have one in turbulent reacting flows. So the most exciting questions are simply the things we do not understand. In this case, how the turbulence, reactions, and background flow all interact to give surprising and unexpected results.”
What would you like to say to any young people just starting to blaze their own scientific trail?
“I would tell young men and young women not to be afraid. That’s what I see too often, people being afraid, intellectually fearful. They are not willing to just look in front of them and see where the problems are and face them head-on. Don’t afraid to be wrong, don’t be afraid to be right. That’s the death of science.”
Fear is the death of science. You know, I think I like that. Pithy. Dramatic. Possibly the next title of my new science fiction book series…
We’ll keep asking the questions, Dr. Oran, just as long as you keep working to answer them.
Dr. Elaine Oran is the Senior Scientist for Reactive Flow Physics, affiliated with the Laboratory for Computational Physics and Fluid Dynamics at the Naval Research Laboratory. Information for this article provided by the Naval Research Laboratory
Jessica L. Tozer is a blogger for DoDLive and Armed With Science. She is an Army veteran an avid science fiction fan, both of which contribute to her enthusiasm for technology in the military.