Golf Ball Dimples, Continuous Integration and Thought Processes

At first glance, it would seem counterproductive for golf balls to have dimples, based on the (naive) notion that a smoother surface always reduces drag. As it turns out, the situation is more complicated; a solid object moving through a fluid (the physics definition, which includes gases) acquires what is known as a boundary layer, within which the effects of the object interacting with the fluid are most pronounced. The object is forcing its way through the fluid–deforming the fluid’s shape if you will–and that deformation takes energy. The resistance of that fluid to deformation results in drag, which tends to slow the object down, resulting in a shorter flight. Although a gross simplification (fluid dynamics surely ain’t my thing), you can think of the boundary layer as the zone in which the fluid is absorbing the forces of the object moving through it.

As it turns out, the situation is even more complicated, but as we’ll soon see, it is within this complexity that we find our answer! As the object moves through the fluid, the fluid is flowing around the object, and it flows in one of two ways: lower drag but separation prone laminar flow, and higher drag but more adhesive turbulent flow. When separation occurs, drag greatly increases. By creating a small amount of turbulence via its dimples, a golf ball becomes less prone to flow separation, thus, even though this turbulence introduces a small amount of drag, overall drag is reduced resulting in greater flight distance! Tennis balls are furry for similar reasons.

To find solutions to problems requires that we first understand the principles behind a given problem, and not just its appearance. Dimpling on golf balls is only counter-intuitive in the presence of an insufficient understanding of fluid dynamics. This isn’t unique to fluid dynamics; it’s a phenomenon that also applies to problems we encounter in our own industries. H.L Mencken, an influential American writer during the first half of the 20th century, once said: “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” Einstein famously wrote “If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”, and if HE thought so highly of the importance of understanding, who am I to argue?! Fortunately, suggestions on how to problem solve abound–I recommend “Creative Problem Solving and Opportunity Finding” by J. Daniel Couger.

In software, Continuous Integration is like the dimples on a golf ball, although it creates a small amount of drag, that drag eliminates a much larger drag force caused by the traumatically episodic integration activities that characterize the way software development was always done. Which brings me to my final point: Resistance to putting dimples on golf balls was based on an unwillingness to let go of incorrect ideas. Resistance causes drag, which slows down our ability to proactively adapt to changing conditions. The question is: how do we dimple our thought processes?


About jeffmershon

Director of Program Management at SiriusXM.
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