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Making Thunderbirds cooler than ever

ASU engineering class helps veteran fix overheating problem in Thunderbirds.
April 4, 2018

68-year-old veteran patents automotive part designed in ASU engineering class

Editor's note: This story is being highlighted in ASU Now's year in review. Read more top stories from 2018 here.

Most people go to college to broaden their horizons. U.S. Air Force veteran Christopher Ames went back to Arizona State University with a laser focus to solve one particular problem.

It started in 2003 when the now-68-year-old attended an auto auction with the intention of buying a model of his first car — a 1964 GTO. But when the bidding quickly soared past his price limit, the GTO went home with someone else.

But the auction was not an entire loss. His wife, Sharon, had seen a couple of classic Ford Thunderbirds she liked, and Ames ended up with the winning bid on a 1956 model at a not-too-unreasonable price. After he got the pink slip and keys, he found out the reason why the car was so affordable: They tend to overheat.

“The classic Thunderbird is an icon of American automotive engineering,” Ames said. “But mechanically, this was a pretty sad Thunderbird.” 

Video by Ken Fagan/ASU Now

So sad in fact that Ames barely drove it off the auction lot before the chrome-and-metal beast began shaking and wanderingWandering is an automotive term for a steering action where the vehicle moves or rambles from a fixed course without positive control.. He took the first exit he could find and delicately drove it home using surface streets. He also learned later that it often overheated, a commonly known malady of the classic Thunderbirds.

Over the course of five years, Ames corrected all the mechanical problems with the car. He swapped out the engine with a correctly sized one he had completely rebuilt. But still he faced the overheating problem — even in a short, early morning Thanksgiving Day parade.

“When you are carrying beauty queens in the Veterans Day Parade, and the car overheats, it is embarrassing,” Ames said. “The car couldn’t even last 20 minutes without overheating, which makes it a non-player.”

Finally, the car overheated in a 2013 caravan to Tucson, rupturing the heater control valve and leaving Ames alongside the road. That event also damaged the engine, which had only 7,000 miles on it. Ames had reached his boiling point. It was time to fix the problem or sell the car. He opted for the former.


Christopher Ames explains the redesign of the engine spacer he created with the help of an ASU engineering class. Photo by Ken Fagan/ASU Now

“I have a mission commitment that some people believe is a character flaw,” said Ames, a retired software engineer. “If you tell me something can’t be done, it’ll drive me crazy until I find the solution.”

After he removed the engine from the car and completely disassembled it, Ames spent most of a day examining every component, and after not finding anything for several hours, he sat down to rest. Looking at part of the water pump from this lower vantage point, he saw it was not designed to channel the water into the engine. This stops the flow of the coolant to the engine at low engine speeds and slowed it at higher engine speeds.

The solution, Ames determined, was actually a question: what is the most effective and elegant design change to address the problem? He knew he lacked the theoretical knowledge to address the issue, so Ames enrolled in “Introduction to Thermal and Fluids Engineering” taught by Mark Miner, a mechanical engineer in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at ASU.

Miner said Ames had his full confidence from the very beginning.

“Chris left me with little doubt that he would achieve his goals,” Miner said. “His confidence in returning to a challenging undergraduate thermodynamics course in the service of his idea spoke very well of his confidence and capacity.”

Since Ames was going to be on campus three days a week, he decided to take a couple of other courses that met on those days — Arizona Political Systems and World Politics: Political Realism. He said they proved to be interesting and welcome academic diversions.

Ames spent the next two years experimenting and testing a voluteVolute is a term for a fluid flow path in pumps. extension that corrects the coolant flow problem. That redesigned part — the A-432 Spacer — is now with the United States Patent Office for review.

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Christopher Ames had no problems with overheating when he drove his Thunderbird, complete with new spacer, to New Jersey and back last year. Photo by Ken Fagan/ASU Now

Mechanic Don Henderson, who has installed the spacer on a couple of classic Thunderbirds, believes Ames has cracked the code.

“Once I saw the part, I knew it would work,” said Henderson, who helped Ames during the testing period. “I’ve seen these cars overheat for decades, but I believe Chris has finally solved the problem.”

But the proof is on the street. Ames made a 5,000-mile round-trip journey to New Jersey last year to attend a Thunderbird convention. He said it went off without a hitch. He also drove his Thunderbird in last year’s Thanksgiving Parade in Fountain Hills, and the car stayed cool, as did Ames and the Vietnam veteran honoree riding with him.

Ames also received approval from the most crucial judge — his wife of nearly 50 years.

“At first I thought this whole thing was ridiculous because it took up a lot of time,” Sharon Ames said. “Then I thought, ‘Well, I guess it’s better than him hanging out at a bar somewhere.’ I am grateful for the way it has all turned out.”

Video by Ken Fagan/ASU Now

Top photo: Christopher Ames shows off the re-engineered part for his 1956 Thunderbird engine, the A-432 Spacer, in front of the medallion of the car that started his journey to a thermal fluids class at ASU. Photo by Ken Fagan/ASU Now

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Steven Pinker addresses human progress, free speech to ASU audiences

Harvard Professor Steven Pinker talks speech, reason, religion with ASU students
April 4, 2018

Harvard professor fields questions from students on religion, politics and technology

Steven Pinker has a message for all those standing at the ready, poised to raise the doomsday alarm at a moment’s notice: Not so fast.

In his new book, “Enlightenment Now” (which Bill Gates has declared his “favorite book of all time”), the Harvard professor of psychology uses social science data to make the argument that we are actually living in the most peaceful, progressive time in human history.

On Wednesday afternoon, Pinker fielded questions from a group of about 30 ASU students in an open discussion on the Tempe campus that included such topics as religion, politics and technology.

“Almost anything that you measure when it comes to human well-being has increased over time,” Pinker told students, citing life expectancy, general health, time for leisure, rates of literacy and access to food, among other measures. 

Pinker was in town to deliver the final public talk in the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership’s “Free Speech and Intellectual Diversity in Higher Education and American Society” 2017–2018 seriesThe School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership’s “Free Speech and Intellectual Diversity in Higher Education and American Society” series is co-sponsored by the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication and the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law., which he gave later Wednesday evening at Old Main’s Carson Ballroom.

Video by Jamie Ell/ASU Now

Over the course of the academic year, the series featured such speakers as fellow social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, Middlebury College Professor of international politics and economics Allison Stanger and University of Chicago law Professor Geoffrey Stone, who all spoke on the urgent need to embrace free speech and diverse thought on college campuses and in society in general.

“It’s been a terrific yearlong series,” said Paul Carrese, School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership professor and founding director. “We’ve welcomed well over 3,000 people to these events since September … and we’ve had a wide range of views represented by people from multiple disciplines and life experiences. 

“We’re delighted to have [Pinker] as the final, cleanup hitter.”

The first question lobbed at Pinker during the afternoon discussion was no softball — "What role do you feel religion plays in humanity’s future?" — and he held nothing back when he swung at it.

“I don’t think there’s a role for belief in a deity,” because there’s no evidence of one existing, he said.

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Harvard Professor Steven Pinker wasn't afraid to tackle hard questions posed by ASU students during an open discussion on the Tempe campus Wednesday afternoon. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

The belief in gods, souls and spirits does nothing to enhance humanity, Pinker argued. Instead, holding out for an afterlife only serves to devalue our lives on Earth. And though he conceded that many religions nowadays have become more humanistic and social justice-oriented, the belief in a benevolent, omnipotent being can lead to inaction on issues like climate change (if the understanding is that said being would never let humans suffer as the Earth withers away) and dangerous misinterpretations of perceived sacred texts.

“If we want to make humans better off, we have to do it ourselves,” Pinker said. “Prayers aren’t going to do it. … That’s why I think humanism combined with science and reason is the most moral set of beliefs.”

When it came to that other most-avoided topic of polite conversation — politics — Pinker’s stance was just as firm.

“We’d be better off if policy questions were not treated as matters of tribal loyalty,” he said. “There are an awful lot of scientists who take a more global approach to [political issues] — we could use more of them. … Decoupling particular ideas from political ideologies is absolutely essential” to progress. 

Pinker referenced the chapter on reason in “Enlightenment Now,” in which he addresses the scientific community’s complaint that many people reject scientific findings because of a lack of education. 

“The actual studies on why that happens show that [the stances people take on certain issues are] simply identity badges for belonging to a particular ideological tribe,” he said. “On average, people who advocate for climate change don’t know any more science than those who deny it.”

Social psychology graduate student Adi Wiezel enjoyed listening to Pinker’s insights.

“It was interesting to hear how different threats, or perceived threats, can affect political attitudes,” she said.

Pinker left students with the notion that just because some things may appear to be in dire straits, it does not mean all hope is lost.

“It’s a misunderstanding of progress to think that everything always has to get better. That would be magic.” Instead, he said, “If we apply knowledge, science and reason to the goal of making people better off, we can succeed. And we have succeeded.”  

Top photo: Steven Pinker answers questions about his books and his thoughts on free speech and human progress during a Q&A session with students, faculty and staff on the Tempe campus Wednesday afternoon. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Emma Greguska

Reporter , ASU Now

(480) 965-9657