How to Cope with Engineers at the University Splendide

Andrea: Science has only one commandment: contribution…

Galileo: I take it that the intent of science is to ease human existence.

(Bertolt Brecht, Galileo, translated by Charles Laughton)


The main entrance to one of the greatest engineering universities in the world has a flight of wide, shallow steps, impressive facade, tall columns, the founder’s name carved into stone. The edifice is heavy with horizontal lines, suggesting stability, solidarity, the burden of responsibility that comes from being the top-rated school for decades on end. You walk up the steps, admiring the understated grandeur, solemnity, and then you get to the front doors, three pairs of doors evenly spaced under the portico. You walk up to the middle set, the ‘automatic opening’ kind. The doors don’t open. They don’t work. They are broken, usually for weeks at a time. Denizens of the university can split an atom but door-opening is a technology they haven’t gotten around to yet.

How to say this? Elite technical universities are not for people like you and I, i.e. people who like the simple things of life, doors that work, buildings where you can find the bathrooms, going about your 9-5 business in an ordinary manner. Plain, credulous folk who want to walk down hallways without something dripping on them, a chapel with windows. Yes, the university has a chapel which is a round brick structure with no windows. During the day, light is reflected from a small ‘moat’ around the structure, but if you are in there at night, it’s like Aida stuck in the tomb.

All the oldest buildings on campus, has very high ceilings, at least 20 feet. Not only are the hallways long and dim, but when they installed air-conditioning and phone/computer lines, the cables and vents were places on metal slats fitted cross-wise about two feet under the ceiling. Thus you are always walking below a mishmash of various pipes, cables, wires, and tubes. Which drip. As you gaze at the drop of moisture on your bare arm, you think “heck, that could be condensation from a cold-water pipe (not likely) or the air conditioning system has a small leak (relatively unlikely), or it’s from the nuclear waste disposal line (likely) or it’s saliva from the fangs of some mutated beast created in and escaped from the bio-engineering lab (very likely).”

As you walk the corridors, you are constantly walking by big signs which say: ‘DANGER – LASER’ or ‘Biomedical Hazard’ or the radiation symbol. Any given corridor could hold a machine shop full of hazardous saws, lathes, and drill presses; the glass lab with super-heated ovens; a cold fusion experiment on the edge of going hay-wire and melting down three city blocks; a chemistry project which is stealthily releasing lethal tetrahedrons into the air. There are the guys with face masks pushing a tottering cart of large, suspicious-looking vials who get on the elevator with you and huge canisters of gases, hissing softly, plunked down in the middle of public walkways.

But if something awful does happen you’ve got protection because the university does not merely have fire extinguishers everywhere, as if it were a mere high school biology lab. It is prepared. There are baskets of safety goggles and protective booties outside the labs; open closets with heavy-duty lab coats and pathogen-resistant gloves; cases full of oxygen tanks (in case the explosion causes a huge tidal wave and the campus is suddenly 50 feet underwater). And my personal favorite: acid showers, small triangle pull handles dangling from the ceiling. No, they don’t cover you with acid, if you get a beaker of acid dumped on you (those prankster undergrads) you go pull one of the handles and water pours down on you. Makes you feel like you are not just ‘at work’ but in some very complex, could-change-at-any-moment thriller. I haven’t yet found where they keep the gas masks or kryptonite but I’m sure they have some somewhere.

So the doors don’t work; so the elevators, copy machines, scanners and fax machines are circa 1970, at least the computers work right? I mean current technology is under control, right? I was given a completely brand-new, spiffy, ultra-max computer, the very latest model with the most up-to-date operating system. It did everything but brush my teeth and vacuum. It also froze up on me. I call tech support, wait three days. The guy arrives, listens to my problems and then carefully and thoughtfully TURNS OFF all the brand-new, spiffy, ultra-max features. Goodbye Super-lock, the palm pilot portal, voice-recognition software, the floppy disc add-on, the sound feature, playing CDS, everything.

Only things my computer could do were e-mail and word processing. And this wasn’t a temporary measure (i.e. no plans to come back and gradually add each feature back on). He explained, “To really see what was wrong, I’d have to go through it thoroughly, about ten hours’ worth of work, and frankly, it’s not worth it. Just use it like this.” Oh, ok. This the most technologically advanced university in the States (they have classes in which the final exam is “create, test, and market a portable nuclear weapon”) but getting a computer to do excel spreadsheets – that’s really tough.

Or consider the fact that the bookshop has Eugene Grandet shelved under “G,” assuming that ‘Grandet’ wrote a book called Balzac, as if Hamlet wrote a book called William Shakespeare. Indeed, non-technical books have quite a hard time of it. The humanities library simply stopped buying books sometimes in the 1970s. There are eight small libraries scattered around campus and a huge book repository which you can’t get into so the books might as well be on Mars.

While there are many opinions on private education, a place like this is necessary. I won’t say it most closely resembles a zoo or an institution for the mentally infirm, but it has correspondences with both. It’s a safe place for people who are looking ahead, focused on one particular issue, for people who find quotidian human interaction difficult, unwanted or both. Observe the coffee shop: there are two possibilities 1) citizens of the university walk up and the counter person says, “triple latter with skim and extra cinnamon.” There is a quick nod of relief, “thank heavens I did not have to make any real communication” or 2) they are in such a deep conversation about Super-K pure water filament replacement that when the counter person asks what they want there is a blank stare of panic: “Ack, I have to make a real-time decision!” They hem, haw, change their order four times, giggle nervously, are unable to find correct change, spill the coffee, can’t get the lid on, put in too much sugar and have to start over.

Have five minutes to spare? Stand behind a professor or student trying to extract money from an ATM. This was most obvious during ‘Reunion Week’ – I have seen the brightest minds of my generation stumped by the ‘do you want a receipt’ question at cash machines all over campus. What puzzles them? What is embedded in the syntax of that question that throws their whole conception of the universe into such doubt that they stand and stare at the machine for a full minute debating the possibilities? Perhaps students and faculty should be assigned a ‘guide human’ to assist then.

Your arms are full and you are approaching a door, if there is a construction worker in the vicinity, he will hop over and open it for you. If it’s a student or professor (especially if he is in khakis and a button-down shirt) – no chance. They will breeze through ahead of you, letting the door slam in your face. This distinction is most evident on elevators – no one will initiate a conversation on an elevator unless they are carrying a hardhat and wearing work boots, in which case you are guaranteed a nice chat about the weather and/or sports.

How can the students and professors be bothered with opening a door or pleasantries when they are concentrating on their courses: Airline Schedule Planning, Plasma Transport Theory, Noncommutative Algebra, and Nuclear Power Reactor Probabilistic Safety Assessment and Risk-Informed Regulation?

To combat this tunnel vision, the university offers “Charm School,” a set of mini-classes including: How to Tell a Joke, Table Manners, Buttering Up Big Shots, How to Tie a Tie, Gotta Get a Gift, Small Talk, How To Tell Someone Something They’d Rather Not Hear and (just so there will be future students) Flirting/Dating. But I am not sure if this is a good idea. Let the other folk worry about doors, hedges, ordering coffee, and a cheery “good morning.” I say leave them to eat with their hands, be rude, and stay celibate – keep them focused on solving the world’s technology problems. If that is, in fact, what they are doing.

The unspoken agreement is that staff will find the professor’s glasses which are on top of her or his head, put up with getting dripped on in the hallways, doors which don’t open or slam in their faces, ten minutes in at ATM line and the ugly architecture, in the hope that somewhere in those corridors with the huge warning signs is someone who is trying to make the world better, that it is not simply a matter of H-bombs, chemical weapons, new spy technology and murderous robots. It is an old, unresolved problem: can an atmosphere which does not appear to recognize the human element, cares little or nothing for the humanities and the details of life, actually create for “the benefit of humanity”?

The writing center, the place to help the students learn to communicate effectively with the rest of the world, was housed in one cramped, thread-bare room with two desks and two small tables. If you had more than two conversations going at once, it was hard to hear. It was finally moved to a new building in an effort to ‘up-grade.’ It is now in the basement. Next to the loading dock.