-excerpted from the April 2009 issue of PE Magazine
In 2008, a National Academy of Engineering committee introduced a list of 14 "grand challenges" for engineering in the 21st century. The challenges cover four areas that are deemed essential for humanity to flourish—sustainability, health, reducing vulnerability, and joy of living.
 Make solar energy economical
 Provide energy from fusion
 Develop carbon sequestration methods
 Manage the nitrogen cycle
 Provide access to clean water
 Restore and improve urban infrastructure
 Engineer better medicines
 Advance health informatics
 Secure cyberspace
Prevent nuclear terror
Reverse-engineer the brain
Enhance virtual reality
Advance personalized learning
Engineer the tools of scientific discovery
I'd personally like to add "The 15th Challenge":
 Increase of public awareness, perception and understanding of what the engineering profession is, what engineers do, and how we can best replenish the educational pipeline for future engineers.
More literally than ever, we need new folks to help build the future.
We'll disregard the minor fact that I'm still on a slow boat to a masters degree, or, what I refer to as my "15 year Masters Program". Perhaps the 15 year estimate is also a bit too generous as my initial predictions were that I could complete an M.S. in the time it took normal academics to complete two PhDs. So close, yet so close.
It's less lack of effort than it is lack of being able to spend time in the country of that my grad school happens to be located. Learning from afar is tedious and while distance learning is an option, there are only so many assignments and projects you can do in a business class airport lounge or on a seat-back tray table in-between +12 hour time zones before your head starts to tailspin (not that it's any less exciting, but then you have to start worrying about internet connections or where you can find a fax machine to send in your homework). Perhaps my academic learning style is a bit old-fashioned, but gimme a front row seat in a classroom any day.
Let me sign up for classes in person and take a full load during a full semester not interrupted by being spirited away to the nether-regions of Asia or Europe. Let me share a lab bench with people who were first learning fractions when I was first learning partial differential equations. Let me be the "older than average" grad student scrubbing the group's glassware in the corner. Combined with being long(er) in the tooth with some work experience sprinkled in just might be the best of both worlds. I can order in pizza or take the lab out to eat because I've been working in corporateamerica for a decade and had always appreciated it when similar events befell me when I myself was a malnourished undergraduate. I wouldn't be any better of a grad student, of course, but I'll be one who can eat out every night on the weeks before a grant proposal is due. At least I can take hunger out of the very multivariate equation. Money absolutely cannot buy happiness. But it can buy ramen. And beer.
Let me be *that* grad student. I'm okay with it.
In the meantime I have taken quite a different route in the engineering world than my closest buds (who are all polished PhDs now in their respective fields--there's even an MD/PhD or two in the mix there).
Which brings me here, on the road to Damascus, carrying 12 pounds of engineering textbooks with me, going to places that require a passport or a business visa in order to be let onto their streets. I am here, in the middle of preparations for the State of Connecticut's professional engineering (PE) licensing exam which occurs in...lemme see...22 days. While some institutions may have had their ivory gates barely cracked open for me, I have been opting to spend my time in airport gates instead. Under such oddball dilemmas, my only option was this: to turn pro.
I have taken a quite different route to chemical engineering than what my disillusioned little brain had anticipated on that day that I lugged my stuff across a college campus a decade ago. Since my jumping off point (or falling down point, depending on how you look at it), I earned my Engineer-In-Training (EIT) in Georgia, experienced a corporateamerican tour of duty in varied facets of industry (and exciting and culturally diverse ones, too--and that's just *in* the U.S.)and now, several medallion super sky elite VIP ifyourehappyandyourknowitclapyourhands miles later jetting from hemisphere to hemisphere, the time has come for my attempt at the grand debutante ball of the engineering profession, the state PE exam. Just eight hours of tender loving time separates those minions forever caught in the "industrial exemption" of engineers with engineering job titles in corporateamerica and the truly licensed professional chemical engineers.
You see, when you get the academic coursework as an undergraduate, you get plenty of theory and plenty of exam readiness, but if you ever felt your true calling in chemical engineering was a roll-up-your-sleeves situation where fluid flow problems were costing you thousands of dollars for every minute the assembly line wasn't making product, or if you were trying to figure out why the viscosity range for a sealant was out of control and you were leaking electrolyte everywhere, then I have a factory, a wrench, Teflon tape, and a Brookfield viscometer that's just for you. The famous names of Ergun and Moody, Hazen-Williams, Nusselt, Prandtl---no longer relegated to that 5 point exam problem you once had during second year. This isn't commentary on academia versus industry however, for in engineering, one enthusiastically feeds the other. But even in the highest-on-the-hog day of days, the ink from the pen always seems to flow a bit more readily when the P.O. for lab equipment or raw materials is being written from a strategic corporate budget than from a finite (sometimes very, very finite) grant piggy. But as a profession, everything is crucially complimentary. The biggest challenge for chemical engineers, or for any engineering discipline as it were, is a PR challenge. How can we take all of these amazingly talented and diligent pools of people in academia and industry and make people care? Ask anyone what a "JD" is, or an "MD," or an "MBA" and the de-acronymization happens instantly. Then mention "PE" and all over again, you become that 10 year old child on the stage at his first piano recital who has forgotten every note of his opening piece. PEs, however, are behind every bridge, structure, chemical plant, and countless other public universes that we live and depend on every day. So why do we become PEs? Well it ain't for the fame (not yet, anyway). That is a realizable engineering feat in and of itself.
So, fine. I am still carrying around mechanical pencils and calculators throughout the world's transit lounges. I have had to remember what the hell exactly to do with Raoult's Law problems while sitting in car services between Chinese cities, I have unfurled steam tables in 5 star hotel penthouse lounges while drinking Carlsbergs and White Russians (the latter, though, not simultaneously), I have re-learned how to calculate friction loss in schedule-40 steel piping churning with water (while sitting in a bubbling spa tank the size of a pool table, as it were). I'm not trying to sell the false magic of luxuriousness.
Sleep deprivation has never been, nor ever will be, luxurious.
It's less about being young or pretending to be young and wanting to have your druthers and pursuing ideology over pragmaticism. But in a sense, one is a CAD drawing of a bolt and the other is actually realizing that you can't find the wrench in the Jobox that turns the physical bolt before you as you watch your experiment disintegrate before your eyes. And if there is any human being that knows about sleep-deprivation, ask any graduate student of *any* discipline. As for engineering, my back's a little sorer for it and the wheels on my luggage have started to wobble a bit, but my current professional choices over my academic ones aren't all too bad for what they're worth. That's really all I'm saying.
The mantle is still out there to be had, I just haven't quite saved up the number of miles I need to redeem for a shot at a different life yet, or rather, the annexing of a different life to my existing one.
I live the life of admiring others while not taking for granted those unique opportunities that have been graciously afforded me in trying times.
For certain, no qualifications are required to sit around a dinner table with your closest friends, academics and professionals alike, and laugh into the night.
And that's the difference between closeness and proximity.
"On the arid lands there will spring up industrial colonies without smoke and without smokestacks; forests of glass tubes will extend over the plains and glass buildings will rise everywhere; inside of these will take place the photochemical processes that hitherto have been the guarded secret of the plants, but that will have been mastered by human industry which will know how to make them bear even more abundant fruit than nature, for nature is not in a hurry and mankind is. And if in a distant future the supply of coal becomes completely exhausted, civilization will not be checked by that, for life and civilization, based on coal, shall be followed by a quieter civilization based on the utilization of solar energy, that will not be harmful to progress and to human happiness."
Science Vol 36 (926) p.394
On a National Geographic documentary, I watched the story of the structural engineering feats involved with the Stonecutter's Bridge in Hong Kong.
The bridge will be the longest cable-stayed cantilever bridge in the world, connecting Hong Kong to Mainland China at a total span of 3339 feet. Its two concrete support towers, each taller than the Eiffel Tower, have to have this flavor of height to allow the ships in one of the world's busiest harbors to pass under freely.
Such an immense amount of respect to the engineers and structural crews involved, led by two Australians: Gary Ward and Simon Caselle. Ward is a modern expert in poured concrete who has been lured by the challenge out of retirement. Caselle, a "tell me what needs to be done and I'll figure out how to make it happen" kinda guy who oversee the structural engineering.
In one scene in the documentary, there is a structural problem during the lifting of one of the support trusses that will contribute to the base of the bridge. Caselle lights the midnight oil and holes up in his trailer and tackles the problem without CAD or ANSYS, but oldschool: graph paper, a pencil, calculator and a ruler.
On the lighter side, the documentary also covered the spot where the engineers and crew go to wind down.
It's a 24-hour bar called, fittingly, The Bridge, in the Wan Chai neighborhood, on Hong Kong Island.
So on Saturday night, I found myself heading towards The Bridge to experience some of the residual ambition and energy I had witnessed on the documentary. Not a huge place, but enough to snugly fit in at least one construction crew at a time. On the walls are photographs of bridges from around the world. And if you've never been served Hoegaarten in a glass so big you almost need both hands to pick it up, now's your chance.
And the fish and chips rock.
Directions on the Hong Kong subway (the MTR) to The Bridge:
 Take the MTR to the Wan Chai station (on the blue line)
 Once you're at the station, follow the signs to "Exit C Lockhart Road"
 Coming out of the MTR, turn left and look across the street. It's wedged in between a couple of other bars.There's a barrier in the middle of the road, so you have to walk to the end of the block, cross the street, and then back-track a hundred feet or so.
Visa and Mastercard but no AmEx.
Hot and Heavy alright.
As in, the climate when I spend the next 6 weeks in Asia.
As in, the weight of these two books adding unneeded (yet simultaneously, needed) weight (gravity is the better double entendre here) to my luggage.
I am about to reveal the future---or at least 6 weeks thereof. As I will be traveling extensively this Fall, I am not enrolled in the Fall semester, so I'm taking advantage of the "downtime" to take care of a chunk of studying for the Connecticut State exam for Professional Engineering licensure.
Ask any engineer who has thought about it and they will paint you the picture of earning the Engineer-In-Training (EIT) license through your state of residence as soon after graduating college as possible (or in some programs, during senior year). This 8 hour exam is the first part of eventual PE licensure and you spend a nail-biting marathon of a Saturday morning slogging through it. My EIT is issued from the State of Georgia and I remember, during the lunch break, staring out the window of the test area--a large conference room space somewhere in the Atlanta Merchandise Mart building, staring at the Southern Company building outside, cars rushing below in the I-75/85 connector, wondering how in the hell my fast food lunch was going to get me through another 4 hours of this stuff. The second part of achieving licensure occurs after "Several years of work experience in engineering" and another nice 8 hour exam, fully fortified by recommendations from other existing Professional Engineers who can attest to your integrity, work ethic, and engineering prowess (or lack thereof).
So fast forward years later. I know that for the PE exam (which I will be applying to sit for, for provided I can navigate the piles of documentation needed), I will have much more to deal with than the gimme chemistry questions that were on the EIT that chemical engineers would have breezed through, the Excel spreadsheet questions which were self-esteem boosters...it will be 8 hours of grueling material specific to chemical engineering. I will finally, in a professional setting rather than an academic setting, get to put my skills as a chemical engineer to the test (literally and figuratively).
Okay...deep breath. My goal while in Asia on my next trip is to become a supreme master of heat transfer, (or at least aspire as such) thanks to my buddies Carslaw and Jaeger, and the 1001 problems furnished by REA in the Heat Transfer Problem Solvers. Between that and reading case studies and opinions by the Board of Ethical Review of the National Society of Professional Engineers, I have my work cut out for me.
And that's only 16% of the exam.
And if I happen to enjoy a glass of Bailey's on the rocks while studying 40,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean, then just consider it a token of self-motivation.
Nicolas Bourbaki, one of the greatest and perhaps most prolific mathematicians ever, has an interesting story as recounted by Amir D. Aczel, author of Bourbaki's biography, _The Artist and the Mathematician_.
This is especially true in light of the fact that Nicolas Bourbaki never existed.
In the mid 1900s, a group of French mathematicians sought out to rewrite how modern mathematics was taught. They sought to rebuild the mathematical epistemology available at the time and modernize it from basic principles, as well as offer a standard as to how basic mathematical information was disseminated to future generations.
This was definitely a story of how a group of well-intentioned intellectuals let the forecast grand scale of their opus challenge the usefulness--perhaps one of the most basic epistemological problems--knowledge for the sake of knowledge, knowledge for the sake of the minority few who could comprehend and recognize it as knowledge, or knowledge for the majority. The group of mathematicians, who organized and published as a group under the singular name of Nicolas Bourbaki, opted for pure mathematical knowledge meant as a seminal path to would-be mathematics students. However, the rigor and abstraction necessary at their level of basic concepts, the sheer raw logical acrobatics of the writing, while beneficial to the brightest mathematical minds, fell out of favor with the common public, even though the work itself was significant.
This reminds me of a similar case in thermodynamics, when, coincidentally, also French, Cartheodory sought to develop a rigorous mathematical representation of the laws of thermodynamics. The rigor and mathematical masterwork was apparent--however, the mathematics itself was so cumbersome, especially to such an application-centric field as thermodynamics, that it was relegated as a great landmark, yet a methodology and thought process rarely climbed and explored by the problem-solving mentality of the majority of thermodynamicists.
Bourbaki, whose namesake came from a prank created by upperclassmen to taunt newbie mathematicians, developed into a full persona. Bourbaki was a member of the fictitious Poldevian Academy of Sciences, of the fictitious country of Poldevia. He had a daughter and when it was decided that the daughter was to be married, wedding invitations were also printed up as part of the farce. Founded by Andrew Weil and included membership of the likes of Cartan and later, Grothendieck (who would later have a falling out, flee to the woods in central Europe, and disappear into isolation, cutting off all ties from friends and family).
Not exactly what I'd plan to do if I can't come up with any interesting mathematical theories of my own, but I would consider a cabin retreat or something. A weekend in Portland perhaps, on the front deck of a weekend rental lodge in the woods, trying to keep my topology separate from my topography.
Late nights, caffeine, carbohydrates, fast grilled protein (among other things).
Every undergrad, grad, doctoral student, with 98% confidence, has some sort of story of that one after-hours establishment which inspired the night muses to help them acquire knowledge.
Mine was Paper Moon Diner in Baltimore, MD which has undoubtedly inspired countless other reminiscing blog journals, but I have to include it here for completeness sake.
And were it not for Paper Moon's 24-hour full menu, my Challenger Deep aspiring undergraduate GPA would have been that much more of a shipwreck than it already was.
On Memorial Day, on a rapid-fire flight in and out of our nation's capital, I made a homeward (homewood) trek to Paper Moon in Baltimore. So different the conditions of life, liberty , and the pursuit of happiness this time than when I had last spent my late nights here...
I had dined, thanks to John Kent, with Kate Pierson of the B-52s (whose autographed wall has since been painted over), and had many a revelry-filled Saturday night here with my closest lifelong friends, but in 1996 the night before finals, it was about Material and Energy Balances.
Munson and I, disillusioned with the benefit of studying on cork floors, were struck with hunger pangs around 3am and the 'Moon was there for us. Of course, he didn't need the studying and he was just along out of pity, I'm sure, but no one could argue with late night grub. My Salmon Chanted Onion sandwich was finished off with their delicious bread pudding followed by a bottomless-cup-of-coffee chaser.
The state of the system may be different nowadays, but the initial state, the energy expended, and its resulting (relative) final state are all consequences of that late night of morale boosting and that glimmer of hope I saw in the papermoonlight.
If nothing else in Material and Energy Balances, I learned at least that.
Just finished "Decoding the Universe" by Charles Seife. Had a very interesting explanation of the area of information theory--"founded" initially by Claude Shannon in the 1970s as a way to cram more bits of information onto existing transmitters. In part of his work at Bell Labs, he eventually modeled the bit transfer mechanism statistically, and eventually came up with
S = SIGMA pi log pi
which descibes that the probability for certain bits of information to be transferred is harkingly similar to Boltzmann entropy:
S = k log W
Where W is the potential number of configurations in a Maxwell-Boltmann distribution.
In another book, Into the Cool by Eric D. Schneider and Dorion Sagan, the authors argue that it's a game of different "S"s(without too much background at all, except a head-scratching dissenting quote from chemistry-in-layman's-terms extraordinaire, P.W. Atkins (who also has a rockingly elegant physical chemistry textbook).
While the theoretical physicists are surging forward in unifying relativity and quantum mechanics, it is always exciting to stumble across parallels in seemingly disparate fields of science and mathematics.
I personally feel that Seife gives a strong enough argument that Shannon Entropy and Boltzmann Entropy are one in the same, especially when defined under the wider umbrella of information. But perhaps I am being overly idealistic in seeing a symmetry which would allow me to toss a personal mental pole vault from thermodynamics into the information theory world.
But given as how I will still await further argument against that thought (and the fact that Schneider and Sagan make reference to a "Fourth Law of Thermodynamics" which discusses thermo's biological implications without once referencing the theoretical maximum achievable temperature of T ≈ 2E11 Kelvin.) The point isn't as much to list the laws of thermo in order--for all we know there are several more "laws" of energy out there. Also, I feel like a cleaner fit would be to follow the Third Law (minimum temperature) with a Fourth Law which defines a maximum temperature.
Schnider and Sagan's explanation of a "Fourth Law" does give one an exciting chill of similarity as it hints at another physicist's thought experiment ongoing today in M-theory, that of cyclical inflation/ de-flation.
I may just be aspiring to connect too many dots, but in the statistical definition of the word, the potential "interactions" at stake are too exciting to ignore.
Had the pleasant opportunity to meet up with Jeff Kovac, whom I had first met during his presentation on ethics in science at a recent American Chemical Society section dinner. I was in Cleveland, TN on business and drove up to Knoxville where he's a professor in the Chemistry Department.
We met at a homely neighborhood-ish restaurant called Aubrey's off Kingston Pike and over cabernet, pasta, and steak, caught up on a continued discussion of scientific ethics in industry. Delighfully, the conversation grew into a wider discourse on the growth of knowledge in general, in science in beyond. Dr. Kovac brought me a couple more papers he had written entwining ethical practices in science.
What I appreciated the most was his path to the present---having gone through a long (and tenured) career in statistical mechanics in chemistry, he has been focusing his writings more on the philosophical aspects of his science and has pursued it tirelessly, despite the seemingly indifferent mindset of his peers and colleagues.
Certainly an admirable energy state of independence, in my book(s). ~ASL
Decided to take a detour from the the Co2 project just to let that part of the mind go on afterburner for a while. I find that I'm craving more to take, in an academic sense, more "retreats" into fundamental scientific theory (as opposed to research specific topics). Plus, if I have to code another line of FORTRAN this weekend, I will, to borrow from Eminem, go "crazy insane or insane crazy." I find myself getting too caught up in the academic-ness of research (which is unavoidably ubiquitous for obvious reasons) rather than chase theory for the sake of theory (in addition to my naively heroic attempts at following the string of scientific development from an pure epistemological standpoint).
Recently, reading about symmetry in the universe from the cosmological standpoint in a book by Brian Greene. I'm definitely a newbie when it comes to string theory/ unification theory, but think it's quite the concept: how all "fundamental" particles of the universe are actually all one in the same "string," but take one different properties depending on the frequencies at which they exist. Pretty heady stuff, especially after a king slice of sausage and onion pizza and a bottle of Harp.
This eventually ties into a recent book on symmetry by the guy who wrote The Golden Ratio whose name escapes me, but whose name sounds like Mario Batali, but is a theoretical physicist rather than a super-chef on the Food Network. Part of the book revolves around mathematician-cum-political firebrand (is "firebrand" too often overused for people who are strong incendiary advocates of one cause or another?)Evariste Galois, who laid the groundwork to the area of modern abstract algebra called group theory. He was killed in a duel in early 19th century Paris at the age of 20. There was also a blurb in the photos in the mid-section of the book that show brief scrawlings towards a young girl of infatuation named Stephanie. Not sure which of Galois' endeavors were more unrequited--his affections for Stephanie, who apparently didn't give him a single nod of liberte' , or how his mathematical treatises were either dismissed, physically lost amongst the halls of the neighborhood Ecole , or forgotten completely.
Something, though, just seems like it's buried and screaming to be discovered. Group Theory meets Symmetry meets string theory meets thermodynamics meets quantum mechanics meets relativistic physics??
If nothing else, it may be Galois clawing his way out of the ground, moaning to complete what he started before someone shot a hole in his liver. If he comes back, it won't be pretty. In which case, where would we find the epistemological equivalent of the Shaun of the Dead gang holed up at the Winchester pub, ready to take on a decaying world?