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Saturday, 17 May 2014

One grunt or two

I like engineers. Always have. They do stuff. They make things happen. They change the world. Social conscience drives them, very often, rather than personal gain. 

When I was in industry, I spent a lot of time with high quality engineers, and was even employed as one for quite a while. Being a physicist gets you into classy company. But it doesn't mean you know what you're doing. I've got good intuition and methods for mechanical systems, but not for electronics.

That’s because solid state physics lectures were at nine in the morning, when my brain cells were still struggling to get their feet down different trouser legs. And even when you thought about them later the lectures were pure horse manure. Electric charge is carried by holes? Gimme a break.

Funny thing is I think I get it now. That's because I've been having long chats with my son about modern art and philosophy. This whole business of holes, it seems to me, is just the aesthetic concept of negative space. 

So my theory is that I couldn't understand electronics because it's modern art that makes it work, not physics. If you look close, the charge carriers in semiconductors are little unmade beds, sharks in formaldehyde and Yoko Ono smiles. 

"Don't be stupid, Douglas" I hear you thinking. "If that's true, why has no one ever seen them?"

Well I'll tell you, pal. 

You only see what you're looking for. If 50% of people fail to notice a full-size gorilla playing basketball, what's their chances of spotting little beds down a microscope? None. That's right.

So anyway here's my problem. We've now got funding to teach engineers to communicate, using Three Minute Learning methods. But it's not just Scottish engineers. The funding is from a UK institution, and we were down in London yesterday, at their headquarters in Carlton House Terrace, learning how to design the project and evaluate our efforts.

It was right in the heart of the British establishment and it made me ponder yet again the fact that some Scottish humour doesn't travel well. I mean the kind that uses creative insults for bonding. It's not part of English culture, except in a few places up North, and you can't rely on it even there.

So I'm going to have to purge all that stuff out of my system, so that I don't stand in front of a class of keen, young English engineers, and mortally offend them. And who better to do that with, and get feedback on our project plans, than my old pal and top engineer, Al?

"So how are you going to teach engineers to communicate?" he asks me over a pint of Ruddles in a comfy corner of the Burnbrae hotel.

"I was thinking we'd start with the basics and move slow," I say. "Maybe one grunt for 'No', two grunts for 'Yes'. Then a bit of groupwork, where they solve simple problems together, like tying their shoelaces. You want to sign up?"

He grunts once for 'No' and sips his beer.

"Over the next few sessions we'd cover hand gestures, marks on paper, emails, joined-up writing, talking to women and using Facebook," I tell him. "If we plan it well, it could be really good, I think. Do you agree?"

He grunts once for 'No' and sips his beer.

"I mean you don't need to tell me I'm not the world's greatest communicator," I say, starting to hear a hint of desperation in my voice. "But that's not the point, is it? In this project I'll be a catalyst, a facilitator, a channel, if you like, for bringing the innate but unformed skills of the young researchers out into clear view, so they can be honed, polished and perfected by their own continuing efforts."

Al puts his pint down on the table and considers me a moment. "You are seriously out of your depth on this one pal, aren't you?" he says.

I grunt twice for 'Yes' and sip my beer.

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