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Reading engineering at university

August 10, 2013


A year or two back, my younger daughter gave me a present, 'Dear Dad, from you to me' , one of those gift shop gifts which are very well intentionedy, but, alas, time is so short that they can often gather dust and never be completed. I decided a while ago that I wouldn't let this happen, and would aim to complete it for Sophie, Alice and Tom, so whenever they want to, they could find out a bit more about their Dad. So, I have set up a private blog, to which only family have access, and have been posting to it during our summer 2013 holidays. Many of these postings are personal, and best kept private for the family only, but those which are less private will also be posted on my main blog.


I read Engineering Science at Clare, Cambridge. As it turns out, I am glad I did engineering science rather than engineering because the science aspect, the fundamentals, is less susceptible to being outdated. The fact that it was less practical, more theoretical, was a help to me too.

I think I fairly quickly realised I had made a mistake in choosing engineering as a possible future career. Looking back, I don't know why, but I ruled our a career in academia- I was encouraged to do a Ph D but firmly declined- I think in hindsight this was based on a blinkered view, a reaction, rather than a properly considered decision; and I knew that, not being practical, a career in industry in engineering would not be suited to me. Whilst right from first year I was in the top bunch academically, there were many better engineers- people who tinkered with things, made up electronics kits, wired up or programmed computers, one Clare engineer tinkered with his car- and I knew I had chosen engineering for the wrong reason- not being good enough at maths -rather than a good reason.

Whilst I could have made myself unhappy by this, I think I resolved to be the best I could be, but I made course choices, particularly in my final year ( I did an economics and a statistics module, for instance, as part of the management aspect of engineering), knowing that engineering was not for me. I think this showed some strength of character, striving to do the best I could, finding a new goal, rather than just being unhappy and languishing.

Three parts of my degree come to mind as I write this blog.

Engineering drawing We had sessions with big, A2 (though it wouldn't have been A2-we hadn't gone metric in those days) paper, where we had to draw objects. We might for instance have a physical object in front of us, it might be as simple as a mug, and we had to mathematically draw it, so that a factory could repeat our design. More likely, it would be some mechanical part- say a pump, and we had to draw its internal cross section from different angles.


Some people found this impossible. My close friend, Ania, really struggled with this- although years later she denied this- but I recall many hours spent with Ania sitting on the floor in my room, large sheets of paper spread out, as I tried to help her get to grips with it: I think she did grasp it in the end. I also struggled with it at first, it was one of those subjects which I had to work on really hard, but eventually it 'clicked': my struggle probably helped my deeper understanding. (I should also say that, looking back, the help I gave Ania was typical of me- throughout my life I have taught others, and, in fact, think it is one of the best ways of boosting my own understanding: if you can't explain it to others, then you don't really understand something, and when you do try to explain things, the gaps or limits in your knowledge show.

Materials science If I had remained an engineer, and especially stayed in academia, materials science might have been the one for me. It was very 'new' or a least 'current'. Take for instance plastics. If I ask you in 2013 to describe plastics, such as plastic cups, or a plastic colander, or containers, you wouldn't know what to say- and if you said something, you wouldn't say 'cheap' 'nasty' 'brittle'. These are the sorts of words you would have used in the 1970s and 1980s. Similarly, making materials which could survive ultra high temperatures, or which were shatter proof…the possibilities were endless, and for some reason, the materials science module appealed to me.


I do remember quite clearly one lecture. Firstly, I should say that it was fairly routine for people in lectures to put their hands up and ask questions: it was encouraged, and even though I was shy, once I had confidence that I was at least comparable with my peers, I would often do this, either answering the lecturer's question, or challenging or extending a topic: such things were part of normal day to day teaching style. Anyway, in one materials science lecture, when the lecturer was discussing the properties of some material, I put my hand up and offered a radical simplification of what he was teaching us, using a symmetry that I had noted: that something was symmetrical viewed from a certain plane. It was my grasp of engineering drawing and 3D visualisation that made me see what I had seen, and the lecturer had to stand back and visualise it himself: alas, it ruined his lecture, killing it mid flow, but boosted my confidence. Afterwards, when the other students has left, the lecturer and I stayed behind and debated it further.

Programming I can't remember if it was in second or third year, but we had to do a project, and I chose to try to program some things which the head of the department, Professor John Carroll wanted doing. (I think that was one way undergraduates got their project topics- a list went up on on the notice board of areas the lecturers wanted some work done on). To understand what follows, you have to appreciate that computers were very new in the early 1980s. We didn't have PCs: I would tap away at a keyboard, and overnight the university 'mainframe' would churn away, so I would get the results the next day, and sometimes (often) they would be ’error: syntax' which you would have to try to find, correct, and try again….at least it taught us the need for accuracy and care.

Anyway, Professor Carroll was interested in a material called Gallium Arsenide which was an even faster semi-conductor than silicon.


It was thought that GaAs might replace Si in computers, and I think it may have, at least in military applications. The professors interest was 'why' was it faster, and I did the computational work. The insight he had had was that mathematically it was no different to why cars bunch up and speed up together on motorways, or why queues build up at supermarket checkouts or cashpoint tills (very topical- the first ATM in the UK was in 1967, and by 1981-84 they were still relatively uncommon- I think people preferred to get their cash from a cashier). So I wrote a model which could be flexed to show how speed of flow varied with impurities in the substrate/ number of till operators/ number of ATMs.

If my memory is correct, I wrote it up as two reports: one for GaAs, and one for ATMs: ATMs appealed to me. Years later, I found my ATM report; the programming seems so antiquated now, and there are packages which do these 'queuing theory' problems in an instant, rather than in months. ( I recall reading the same maths being applied to loos: how many male and female loos does an entertainments venue need, given differences between the sexes: remember this, next time there is a queue for the ladies at the theatre).

Professor Carroll published my paper under his own name, not acknowledging my input. He wasn't being inappropriate here, it was the way of academia. He has the insight, all I did was the (in those days) grudge work. Professor Carroll tried quite hard to encourage me to do a Ph D under him, but I was steadfast in my refusal. I think part of my reason was 'soppy' that I had learned that the main use of GaAs was in military lasers, and the early 1980s was the time of CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) and I like all students was affected, as you will be, by the mood of the times.

Thirty years later, I remain proud of my ATM paper. I hope that at some stage in your education you will do a thesis or project which will make you likewise proud.


I have just googled Professor Carroll. He must have temporarily left Cambridge some time after 1984 to work on GaAs in industry.


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