Advice to a Young Scientist/Engineer

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When you are insane with genius, time management skills are the first thing to go. (Dr. Dinosaur courtesy of Scott Wegener & Brian Clevinger)

I am starting to build a backlog of incomplete posts, for which I apologize. For the TL;DR version: I went to the Nevada Test Site and it was awesome, the BBotE order slots for the window ending May 30th are now up, and a new label for the bottles is coming that I’m very excited about.

But today, I wish to grant the wish of a someone that made an order and asked “I’m a 23 year old engineer aspiring to make a difference in the world. Can you enlighten me with your wisdom through the telling of a story?” So, here you go, man. I do indeed have some advice to share.

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You are a wizard. No, really. You have Wisdom of Things and can tell the future of how they will work, or won’t as the case may be. Somewhere, somewhen, in Middle Ages the line between philosophy (natural philosophy being the old term for what we’d call the sciences) & magic got a bit blurred and it’s been hard to disentangle them ever since. Clarke’s Third Law that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic is just a reflection of that old confusion.

And that’s the trick as a scientist or engineer; it isn’t magic to you.

In the long, long ago, in the beforetime, I was a physics undergrad functioning as a TA for the Academic Excellence program at UC Santa Cruz, which had the dedicated mission of trying to help minority students in the sciences stay in them, with a grad student functioning as our supervisor. The grad student ditched out of the program very early on, leaving my fellow TA and I with a hard choice: do we fold up the physics program as we have no one in charge, or do we team teach it as best we can as undergrads? Neither of us had ever had a teaching gig of any kind before this one and no one taught us anything about pedagogy. We were second quarter sophomores for fuck’s sake; we’d just started taking upper division classes, having finished the dedicated physics major version of the lower division courses we were now teaching other students, who were usually older than us.

And they let us do it. They never made an effort to hire a new grad student for the next two and a half years. Our supervisors trusted that, hey, they’re physics majors, of course they can do it. We did and we did it well. Every single one of our students passed with B or better and the only one that had bailed on the program had to do it for health reasons, not because he wanted to.

But that trust is what I want to focus in on. Think of all the people in your life that have decided that math is frightening, that there is simply too much in the world to know. You have been equipped with the tools to tear apart the toaster of reality and take some good guesses how things actually work. When you can do that, I find people react in one of two ways: unwavering trust or fear. That trust put two undergrads in charge of 60 students that the system expected to fail. And they might have, if I hadn’t intentionally broken my students’ trust.

While giving a review lecture for mechanics about rotation and changing inertial reference frames, I made a sign error. Normally, this isn’t a big problem but when you’re bouncing between reference frames, things start getting weird fast. I decided to just roll with it and keep going, as no one had called me on it, just to see how far I could go with patently bizarre and wrong math on the board.

At the 40 minute mark, I capped my dry erase marker, put it down, and turned to the class. “I made a mistake over a half hour ago and none of you caught me. If you did, you didn’t say a word and let me keep going.” There were stunned and angry looks. Most of my students were pre-med, which means they were used to a steady stream of rote memorization from a year of biology and chemistry. With sad understanding in my voice I told them “Memorizing won’t work here. There are too many formulas and you can’t possibly hope to memorize the infinite permutations of them for every possibly scenario. The Laws of Motion and energy conservation are conceptual tools that help you build the tool you actually need for any given problem. Let’s start again, but now I’ve taught you an even more important lesson: I make mistakes too. Being a physics major doesn’t make me infallible. NEVER accept what what the person at the board is doing as absolute truth, you have to keep thinking. This ain’t a church and I’m not the pope. Pay. Attention.”

They never let me get away with it again. Thinking harder about the world and getting  more familiar with using the tools they’d been handed, rather than just memorizing their shapes for organization on the pegboard in the tool shop, started making them much better in their other classes too. To the point that after three quarters, when I put up three blackboards worth of scenarios asking “For each of the following, using what you have learned since the fall, please explain why Phil didn’t die.” that they were able to answer them all.  They were a little concerned that each of those scenarios was a real story, but that’s another matter. I actually got one convert who decided that physics was the major she should really be doing. It’s been almost 20 years and that’s still a moment in my life I look back on with tremendous pride.

You aren’t going to be able to do much about the people that are afraid of you for what you know and seem to be capable of (see also: the fate of almost every wizard in folklore), but you can try to get the people who blindly trust to join us. No one’s ever going to master everything, but the point is to get people interested enough to try; case in point, I’m shitty at drafting and never will make a good engineer, but that doesn’t stop me from staring lustfully at the CNC machine.

I would like point you at the old World of Darkness game Mage the Ascension, specifically to the Technocracy’s updated Convention sourcebooks. This isn’t just because Brian Clevinger managed to sneak my name into the 2013 revision of my favorite of them, the Void Engineers. They were traditionally portrayed as the adversaries in that game, with the “heroes” trying to keep the ancient mysteries alive and reassert them as dominant paradigm in the world. I had a hard time with this as the Technocracy were clearly the heroes trying to advance and awaken humanity as a whole, not just pursuing a personal and hubris driven set of obsolete beliefs. The lone wizard in the tower, looking for the secrets of yore in ancient tomes is doing it wrong. The wizard teaching an army of apprentices to wield magic in their own right for the common weal, that is noble.

Probably not a Nobel, but if you’re doing it for prizes, you’re in the wrong field. I’m not telling you to get out there and become a science teacher at your local school, but take every opportunity you can to explain what you’re doing and why to anyone who will listen.