Friday, December 30, 2016

Making Something Out of Nothing

On my first day as an engineer's assistant at Ohio State University's Van de Graaff accelerator lab the chief engineer had nothing for me to do. She took me to the electrical engineer who also had nothing for me to do. The only other possibility was the machinist who, not surprisingly, had nothing for me to do. However, the grime and metal remains of the machine shop caught his eye so he said I could clean the machines. I brushed the curlicued metal from the surface of a lathe, and flossed its crevices for stubborn shavings that had not seen light for years. After multiple towel wipe downs even the dull gray paint seemed to sparkle. A quick sweep of the shop floor ended that shift.

The next day replayed the same story: nothing from the chief engineer or electrical engineer or machinist, but other machines were dirty. So I repeated the hygiene on another hunk of hardware, swept, and left. Day three played much the same way, but all the machines had been cleaned by day's end. Since it was likely that neither the engineers nor machinist had time to give, I went straight to the shop on the following day. I told the machinist that I would start cleaning and organizing the rest of the shop. Scrap and supplies from decades of creation by the machinist and graduate students were at best loosely grouped and at worst tangled in heaps or strewn about the shelves.

For days I reduced the entropy of that room, bringing order from disorder. I separated metal from wood. I discarded bottles both empty and old. I partitioned metal by types: aluminum, copper, brass, steel of many sorts. I arranged chemicals together as appropriate, and sometimes apart as appropriate. Tools and fasteners and forms and protectants were all objects of my organizational whirlwind. And each day, I swept.

At the end of two weeks the machinist asked why I, an undergraduate physicist in training and engineer's assistant by title, cleaned without complaint. I answered, "Soon there won't be anything left and you'll have to teach me something." He may or may not have smiled, but I do know that he said something to the effect, "Starting next week, I'm going to show you how to use the machines." I am sure I smiled. He taught me how to do precision work on the machines. He showed me how to read drawings and understand design principles. He had me make parts for experiments. He instructed me about the strengths and weaknesses of different materials, and their suitability in different situations.

In time I did get to work with the chief engineer on several interesting projects. I learned about medium energy physics from the graduate students. I saw the magic of electronics from the electrical engineer and his crew. I successfully designed, built, and installed a vacuum bypass system from scratch, thanks to the tutelage and kindness of the machinist. I saw and experienced the joy of creation and learning.

And each day, I swept.

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