The plan, at least once I demonstrated some modest talent for mathematics and a curiosity about things scientific, was that I would be some kind of engineer, and I went through enough slide rules in those days to make it believable. What iced the deal was the SAT, on which I did decently enough in the verbal section but better still in the math stuff. Then something snapped, my interest in the nuts and bolts of technology did a fast fade, and I decided that under no circumstances could I ever become an engineer.

I'm not quite sure what happened back then. I do know that high-school physics bored the stuffing out of me; it got so drab at one point that I resorted to writing lab reports almost entirely in dialogue, which impressed no one in a position to make notations on my Permanent Record. And college chemistry, while it covered a lot of ground I didn't get to traverse in high school, somehow managed to go in one ear and out the other. The tools of the trade — the drafting equipment, the books the size of Michener novels, the really, really good slide rule — didn't impress me as much as I thought they would. I backpedaled, backslid, and finally backed out.

Some things, however, I do know. It was in the late Sixties that I began my slow slide from standard-issue irritable adolescent to emotional basket case. The ability to fend off feelings I neither needed nor wanted gradually diminished and eventually disappeared entirely. Perhaps I had become possessed of the notion that human emotions, being barely explainable, let alone controllable, were incompatible with crisp, efficient engineering skills. And there are few things I hate worse than doing things I don't do particularly well, and crispness and efficiency were two of them, so, in the sort of conclusion one has to be twenty and deluded to reach, I turned my back on engineering altogether. I would have been, I believed, a lousy engineer, surrounded by engineers who were at best less lousy, and the world doesn't need any more such.

Now it's the twenty-first century, and the world still doesn't need lousy engineers, but fortunately for all of us, there are plenty of good ones. What's more, despite what I may have believed, there is no tunnel-vision requirement; it is only recently that I have realized how badly I had misjudged this profession. Contributing to this realization, I must report, are a couple of engineers whose expertise, not in some narrow discipline but over a broad range of quintessentially human topics, has effectively redefined the very word "engineer" as I know it.

The first of these is Dr John H Lienhard, who holds the position of M. D. Anderson Professor of Mechanical Engineering and History at the University of Houston. Where I encounter Dr Lienhard is not in the classroom, however, but on the radio: for fourteen years he has presented The Engines of Our Ingenuity, which runs five days a week on our local classical-music station, right before lunchtime so I can't miss it. And while Dr Lienhard of course knows nuts and bolts, his topics range far and wide, covering nearly every aspect of human creativity and how each of them has affected our contemporary culture. Almost every single episode has had some valuable lesson to teach me. And what's more, if I manage to miss one, the University puts transcripts on the Web.

If the broadcasts of Dr Lienhard hadn't already proven to me that there was something more than mere numbers to engineering, surely the writings of Steven Den Beste, self-described "gentleman and scholar" (and quite accurately so, I believe), recently retired from Qualcomm, would have finished the job. Den Beste's USS Clueless Web site is a must-read around these parts; every day there's something new to explore, be it scientific, political, or just wickedly smartassed. Had I any discernible talent, I would be writing stuff like that.

So I screwed up. With a bit more attention to detail and a bit less attention to my more wayward brain functions, I might eventually have become as erudite as Lienhard, as engaging as Den Beste, or maybe at least reasonably competent in a field that deserves far more respect than I was willing to give it at the time. Of course, it's far too late now to try to make a silk purse out of pork rinds. I still have a slide rule, though. And yes, I can work it.

The Vent

9 March 2002

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 Copyright © 2002 by Charles G. Hill