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If only I had known what grad school would be like…

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If only I had known what grad school would be like…


If I had any idea what I would be getting into with graduate school, I would have run in the opposite direction. Thankfully, I was naive and stepped through the door into a much bigger world. Yes, it was tough (more like horrible) and protracted (seemingly endless) but it was worth it. I didn't take the easy path and have since advised others to avoid it too—better to choose the steep and slippery one; the view from up the trail is much grander.

My 40-year-long career can be summed up in one word: problem solver. When a thing's broken and looks like it can't be fixed, call me.

I have always thought outside the box. I never cracked a book in high school and barely got by. I worked as a professional mechanic beginning at age 14. I got a job washing cars but never finished the first one. When they discovered I could fix cars that ended the washing.

I got tired of doing front-end alignments and replacing ball joints. Eventually, I graduated with the highest GPA in the College of Engineering at Florida Atlantic University and went on to earn a PhD from the University of Tennessee. In the past 5 years I have published 37 books. I have no intention of slacking off the pace until I slump over the keyboard and step onto the next trail. My advice is: don't give up, keep climbing, and ignore the hecklers along the way.

Whose path should I walk on? My father's or my uncles'?

My father was a surgeon. He could operate on three people at the same time with a fire raging in the ER. He was the Director of Medical Research at Emory when I was born, in 1952, and the world's foremost authority on the effects of wood alcohol on the optic nerve. He performed many thousands of surgeries in the US and developing countries (Kenya, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Cuba, to name a few). I went with him on many of these trips and watched countless surgeries.

My father's brother was an engineer and a graduate of the US Naval Academy. He had a long and successful career building things and making machines work better. My mother's brother always wanted to be an auto mechanic, but his mother insisted he go to medical school. He was in practice with my dad for many years. While he was also an accomplished surgeon serving in the US and abroad, he would rather be under the hood of a car; but this he could never do because we must not risk the surgeon's hands twisting a wrench.

I don't have the temperament to be a surgeon or any sort of physician. I analyze everything down to the gnat's whisker and am always second-, third-, and fourth-guessing myself. Dad didn't know which end of a screwdriver to use, while I have no business wielding a scalpel and so we are very different. I once reassembled a 5-speed transmission brought to me in a box. I rebuilt my first engine at age 11 without adult supervision (or permission). I dismantled the television (with vacuum tubes) several years before that. I was born knowing how to torque head bolts. The choice of path for me was clear.

Initial disappointment with school

My first two years of college at Georgia Tech were a crushing disappointment. [I'm not criticizing the School.] I rarely set foot inside the mechanical engineering building and was never able to connect with my assigned advisor. My roommate's advisor (in a different department) would sign anything so I was able to register for classes by getting him to sign for the courses I was taking. I thought they would teach me why one piston crown shape was better than another and why there is always a slight twist in the armature of electric motors used in hydraulic pumps.

I never spoke to an actual engineer and never encountered anyone who could answer even the simplest practical question. I rarely saw a tenured professor, rather taking courses from graduate students, who were still struggling to learn English. The first two years consisted of courses designed to get rid of the riff raff—quite effective. There were (and still are) many excellent faculty at Georgia Tech. They just never crossed paths with freshmen. I trust the situation has improved in the half century since then.

I left college and returned to changing ball joints and aligning front-ends, vowing to never again pursue school. But I had too many questions about everything from exhaust gas recirculation to vibrations to multi-port fuel injection. One day at the shop I (the mechanic) was explained compound interest and how dx/x=c*dt leads to x=a*exp(c*t) to the boss (supposedly a financial whiz). This discussion became a turning point so that I decided to give school another try.

This time I went to Florida Atlantic University (FAU), where the Ocean Engineering Department had been set up by the US Navy and supplied with the first batch of faculty with those having served in that branch of the Military. These were teachers with practical experience, who answered my endless questions! My thermodynamics professor (William Tessin) had retired from a long career in the power industry. My structures professor (C. Y. Lin) had designed the fuselage of the C5A (the largest military transport aircraft ever built). My internal combustion professor (Charles Sampietro) had designed the Rolls Royce Merlin (the most famous reciprocating aircraft engine). My electronics professor had designed satellite circuitry. One of the professors had been a Navy seal and another had commanded a destroyer. These encounters were transformative for me. I could have perhaps met such inspiring teachers at another institution, but they are often not set up to facilitate this essential process of interaction, as was FAU at the time.

On to graduate school

When I ran out of undergraduate classes, I just started taking the ones at the master's level. In-state tuition was cheap and no one said I couldn't. By the time one of the faculty figured out what I was doing, he just asked me to fill out a form.

I was working on a problem (ocean thermal energy conversion) so it became a thesis. I eventually ran out of master's level courses and FAU had no doctoral program in engineering at the time. My advisor (Jeffrey Tennant) said he'd make a call and asked me to pack my bags. That was the first time I gave any thought to the University of Tennessee.

Professor Tennant secured for me a teaching scholarship and began course work. I didn't bring a single book to my comps because I thought they were just to help with placement—sort of like an aptitude test. I was so clueless.

I suspected something was wrong when the other students showed up with suitcases and pull-along carts full of material. The strange look on the professor's face that came to deliver the results in person was alarming. He couldn't recall anyone else passing on their first attempt during his tenure.

It wasn't long before the faculty split: the ones that liked me and the rest that hated me. Thankfully, the department head was in the first group, as were a few other senior faculty and the assistant dean. I didn't help this situation. Pointing out a derivation mistake on the board and also in the textbook was not a smart move. The student in the desk next to me at the time almost had a coronary, pointing at the book and the lecturing professor, who had written it.

My stupidity did not end there. I was also foolish enough to later explain that the famous graph (and the correlation bearing the professor's name) in a prestigious publication by another faculty member was just a straight line having a slope of 1/pi. The ratio of the dimensionless groups on the X- and Y-axes could be reduced to a constant. No wonder the experimental data clustered so nicely about the regression. I was naïve enough to think that people actually wanted to have their mistakes addressed.

On to industry

I did eventually complete the program and successfully defend a dissertation. I also paid the graduation fee three times. How was I supposed to know that advanced degrees are awarded by the Graduate School and not the College of Engineering? I suspect the respective staffs are unaware of each other's existence on most campuses. The buildings are positioned as far apart as possible so as to avoid unnecessary contact. By that time it was also apparent to me that I needed to leave the campus as quickly as possible.

I got a job in industry from a contact lens patient whom my wife met while working in an ophthalmologist's office. After a chaotic tumble, I landed in the right spot! My boss (William R. Waldrop) would lead me on a crusade to fix all manner of broken things in the power industry from nuclear plants to cooling towers. Working on his team at TVA's Engineering Laboratory was continuing education, research, and a lot of development.

[A little of Bill Waldrop's story is worth telling here. Lockheed's contract included providing a 3D computer model of the Saturn-V engines—on punch cards to run on a mainframe. Ignition was approaching and no model. NASA was insistent and Lockheed was scrambling. Though he had never done anything like this before, Bill said, "I'll do it… if you'll give me a job." He leveraged that to work on a doctorate at LSU. The Mechanical and Aerospace people weren't interested, so he got into the Chemical Engineering department and turned the rocket engine program into a model of the Mississippi River flowing out of New Orleans into the Gulf of Mexico. What a mentor!]

Software developer

I am not a computer programmer, though I often write programs to solve problems. I have written approximately three million lines of FORTRAN, C, and assembler. I have no idea how many programs this represents and quit counting long ago. I have never sat through a single lecture on computer programming nor ever taken a test on the subject. I had to pass a class to graduate so I made a deal with the instructor. He would assign a problem. If I could solve it, he would give me an A and I would never have to come to class. I put it off until the very last minute as a senior.

The year was 1974. The problem was the knight's tour. A knight, alone on the chessboard, makes 64 moves, landing on each square once and only once. I returned two days later with the solution in FORTRAN on punch cards. It's a good thing I didn't know that he had been given the problem in graduate school and had never solved it. If I had, I might not have taken the risk. I later translated the algorithm into assembler for the Intel x86 processor. The entire executable program is only 1665 bytes. I also have a 3D version that allows you to select the types of wood for the pieces and stone for the Board (all available for free on my website).

Like Bill Waldrop, I have solved problems that others said couldn't be done. I wrote the first thermodynamic cycle modeling tool to run on a microcomputer. I wrote what has become the industry standard model for cooling towers. I wrote the 3D contaminant transport modeling system used by DoD remediation contractors for more than a decade. I wrote the first 3D particle tracker to use the Hamiltonian method and out perform every other model available. I extended the properties of steam from 1273 K and 1 GPa to 6000 K and 150 GPa. I also solved the enigma of inorganic chemistry: the non-ideal Gibbs problem. [Free energy minimization constrained by elemental abundances for non-ideal participants with vanishing fugacities. As the fugacity coefficient (or compressibility) of any participant decreases below unity, the Hessian (i.e., matrix containing the second partial derivatives of the total free energy) becomes increasingly ill-conditioned and the steepest descent search toward the minimum becomes indeterminate. This solution is also available for free online.

As you can see, it’s been quite a ride and as I wrote before, I’ve no intention of stopping until I’m slumped over my keyboard.

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Published on: Oct 08, 2020

Polymath with a desire to problem-solve
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