Monday, June 12, 2006

Back Link Naivety and Tenaciousness

Or Why I Chose To Become An Electrical Engineer

Many years ago I decided to give up my first profession, as a ballet dancer, and go to university and study for a second profession. I wasn’t quite certain what I it was that I wished to do with my life, but it sure wasn’t the arduous, narcissistic, poorly paid, fickle, competitive-ridden, food-depraved, boring, jubilant, sublime art of dance.

When I was in high school I had a Hungarian math and physic teacher. She was perhaps one of the few teachers I ever encountered, who not only had a calling as a teacher, but she was impassioned mathematician and physicist. She believed that mathematics was not the art of mixing numbers or memorizing formulas, but music of the rarest form. She instructed us in the field of mathematical theory, but she also took the time to tell us who discovered each theorem, and about the lives of these men and women, and most particularly, how their theories were rarefied works of wonder.

So, when it came time to choose a field of study I naively considered studying mathematics. I invited my father to lunch one day to discuss this decision. His reaction was, quit ballet– fine, study mathematics–not so fine. His logic was… why would you study something for four or five years only to end up an unemployed math teacher? (This was over twenty-five years ago and the professional choices for math graduates were limited).

Instead, he asked me to describe the type of life I envisioned after leaving university. I wanted to have my cake and eat it too: enough of sacrificing everything for art. I wanted to live in different countries; have the time to travel; my job should be steady and well paid; I wanted to work with interesting people on interesting projects, etc. And math and physics should be the main portion of the study curriculum. We ended up compromising with electrical engineering.

The culture shock of “higher education” was brutally, instantaneously, apparent when I discovered myself in the middle of a crowd of locomotive-hat-dawned first year engineering students: watching them partake in various infantile initiation rituals (e.g. streaking through the campus with nothing on but their locomotive hats and cloth diapers), as well as not so infantile rituals (e.g. beer throwing, food gobbling contests at the local pub with amateur strippers hired from the student faculty).

Once the initial rush of indignation settled down, I realised that all my fellow students had spent the last years studying feverously and not, as I had done, on point shoes dancing from one end of the stage to another. The disparity of academic background couldn’t have been greater.

Completing my electrical engineering degree was a dance requiring a fair measure of self-discipline and ornery tenaciousness. If it wasn’t for the mathematic courses (magical) and professor Wang (quantum physics and laser theory), I don’t think I would have persisted.

Professor Wang was the PhD. student studying under the two scientists who received the Nobel Prize for discovering the transistor. Rumour had it, that much of the work that professor Wang did as a PHD student was the basis for this discovery. The next rumour was, that professor Wang was generally disappointed with the applications that had subsequently been developed using transistors. Thus he specifically chose to teach quantum physics and the non-military use of laser theory as a statement of his disapproval. This probably was all a piece of nonsense, but it inspired me to see that there is also an ethical choice to be made in where I move professionally.

He held a fascinating two hour lecture about Chinese acupuncture and future medical applications, which completely changed the direction I had been considering: from telecommunication to medical engineering. He also mentioned a branch of Siemens in Germany researching such systems. After my studies were completed I packed to bags and headed over to that branch of Siemens, and so ended the one story and the next one began.

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