Monthly Archives: March 2017

Sometimes it is Just Really Easy

Many of my good friends will tell you that I am not particularly good at telling a short story. I seem to remember too many details and get obsessed with sharing them all. Once-in-a-while, I tell one of my stories and a really clever student hears it and does something amazing. Such experiences obviously do not discourage me from taking my time to get to my point. The story that I would like to tell now has two parts because telling it one time gave it a second chapter. I will begin the story at chapter two.

In my early years at RPI, the Plasma Lab (where my wonderful colleagues, students and I got to have great fun doing diagnostics for nuclear fusion experiments for 35+ years), was located in the MRC Building because we were part of what was then the EEE Division (Electrophysics and Electronic Engineering) … basically the physics side of electrical engineering. The drinking age was 18 so we regularly had a keg every Friday afternoon. Weather permitting, we drank at the loading dock, but other times in the lab. Most of the building, which also housed Materials Science and Engineering (still does) contributed in some way to the cost of the beer and everyone drank their share. This allowed everyone to wind down at the end of the week. (Note that it was possible at that time to get a temporary liquor license for on campus parties, which we did religiously every week.)

The general camaraderie led everyone to tell stories. One of the stories that I told had to do with a special experience I had as an undergrad at the University of Wisconsin. When I was a junior EE student, I worked as a researcher in a solid state lab run by Professors Al Scott and Jim Nordman. They were two great people to work for. As an undergrad, I did not work directly for either of them but rather for one of Jim’s students Juris Afanasjevs. (See their letter in the November 1967 issue of the Proceedings of the IEEE for the project I worked on.) Juris was quite the character. In addition to his talents as an engineer, he was also a good musician, playing the organ with Bach being among his favorite composers. (This is how I remember things … I have since learned too often that my memories are always a little faulty. However, I think I have most of this correct.) The EE department had a UNIVAC computer at the time, which was not heavily used because so few students and faculty knew how to program it. One day, after hours, Juris decided we should program it to play music (specifically Bach). The only outputs computers in that era produced were blinking lights, so he set out to program the lights and then connect amplifiers to them to make it possible to hear the tones produced. I had some programming skills but this was his idea and I helped only as he directed me. He was ultimately successful in producing some music which really amazed me. My point in telling the story was to show that there were always opportunities to do some fun things with technology if one had the skills, access to equipment and a willingness to do things without asking permission. We did not do anything really unsafe, but the computer was pretty expensive and not supposed to be used in this manner.

At the Friday session where I told the story was Dave Ellis, who was one of the many undergrads I recruited to work in the Plasma Lab. In Dave’s case, I hired him to help take care of our Data General Minicomputer, which was one of my responsibilities in the lab. The computer was purchased before I was hired at RPI and I had to attend two weeks of training at Data General headquarters in the Boston area to learn how best to use it and train others. This had a big impact on my computer knowledge and the minicomputer was one of the most important tools we had to do Heavy Ion Beam Probe system design. Dave was absurdly smart (his roommate John Barthel said it was like living with the answer book), and had a great career working with Steve Schoenberg at SIXNET cut short by an all-to-early death. No one who worked with Dave forgot the experience. He is really missed.

Other stories were told that day but my computer music story apparently inspired Dave. The next morning I came in to use the computer (we scheduled it 24/7 because it was so essential to our work). When I booted it up, I found some new files, one of which was called ‘Suicide,’ which you might imagine was a bit unnerving. However, when I ran it, I discovered that it played the theme song from MASH, ‘Suicide is Painless.’ (A reference to the story behind this song by Michael Bingham [another of my great students] on Facebook – see¬† – inspired me to finally write this down.) Elsewhere on the computer I found several more songs Dave had programmed, all done since we ended the party Friday night. He was the kind of student we only had to suggest something to and it would get done. All the grad students made excellent use of his talents when they were doing their simulation studies on the computer. I have always encouraged my students to be very independent, even suggesting that if they never break anything they are not trying hard enough. Dave knew this even before he came to work in the lab. He was so great to have around that we supported him as an undergrad and as a grad as her pursued two masters degrees (one in EE and one in CS). It was during this time, I think, that he started to work for Steve.

Throughout my career as an educator, I have been very fortunate to know a lot of great students. Very few had Dave’s native talent, but I have enjoyed working with everyone who grew both as engineers and people. When I was a grad student, there were other students who were absurdly bright like Dave, who really added to my own personal education. Never hesitate to find such people, especially the nice ones, and learn as much as you can. The experience, while often very humbling, is definitely worth it.