Most folks know that I entered the University of California at Berkeley with the intent of becoming a mechanical engineer. I had two significant problems that eventually led to my dropping out of the College of Engineering and, ultimately, pursuing a degree in “Journalism” (actually American Studies, but since we had no undergrad journalism degree, and Mass Comm seemed lame, I made one up and took a bunch of grad-level journalism classes). The first was the lack of practical application of the knowledge learned in the classroom. It’s all fine and well to perform a titration or derive a function, but without seeing the why it’s completely useless to me. I have little patience for such useless knowledge, so I didn’t spend as much time studying it or paying attention in class. The second reason was simply my narrow mind having a hard time balancing classroom education with the life education I was getting from being away from my parents and out on “my own” for the first time. College is a nice transitional period between living with one’s parents and dealing with the real world, and I was far more interested in the education I was getting outside of class than in it.
But here it is just six years later and some of the cutting-edge things I saw as an engineer are finally hitting the light of day. For instance, I’ve been hearing a lot about this “Aerogel” stuff that was developed a while back but is now seeing some real applications. When I was an ME student, I took the standard class on materials. They took us into the materials lab one day and took out a small 1×1 inch share piece of… stuff. They told us it was almost as light and dense as air and about as expensive to make as a Ferrari. Then they proceeded to pass it around, prodding us to be delicate with it.
When they dropped it into my hand, I could barely feel it, it was so amazingly light. It sort of feels like Styrofoam when you rub your nail against it. And, man, is it brittle — I accidentally broke of a very small chunk in the process of playing with it. At the time, they were still working on practical applications of the stuff. Certainly, an almost light-as-air material would be immensely useful in various industries, particularly aerospace, but it was so damn brittle that it had no structural use. Now they use it to trap space dust and the like without adding any significant weight to the spacecraft. Very, very nifty.
The tech world was also recently abuzz about a robotic exoskeleton being produced at UC Berkeley. What’s kind of cool about this to me is that I actually helped work on that thing to a very teeny, tiny degree way back when I was just a freshman. During engineering orientation, I got to tour the mechanical engineering labs at Etcheverry Hall. One of the labs we toured was Homayoon Kazerooni’s lab. He was interested in designing machines that enhanced human abilities. There’s a special name for the field that escapes my mind at the moment.
I was blown away by what I saw. When I dreamed of engineering school, I dreamed of cool, futuristic things like robotics and computer-generated images and all the normal whiz-bang scifi stuff. His lab was the only one I had seen that had all that in spades. I had read somewhere that the best way to get involved in an engineering project was to just walk in, find the professor in charge and ask if there was an opening. A couple of weeks after the tour, I did just that.
Prof. Kazerooni was a very cool guy. He knew I had zero knowledge – hell, I was just a freshman – but also saw that I had a strong desire to do cool things. So he gave me a volunteer position as the “Lab Manager”. As Lab Manager, it was my task to make sure everything was clean and organized so that the grad students could easily find what they needed and not have to work in a messy lab. That’s right: he made me a glorified janitor. I knew it right from the start and was a tad crestfallen at first, but then I realized that, hey, we all have to start somewhere and both he and the grad students were truly cool folks who were often more than happy to show me how certain things worked and such.
One of the cool things they had was large hydraulic robotic arm. It had tons of thick tubes connecting it to some spot in the wall that, I assume, was where the hydraulic pump was located. One of the grads told me to be especially careful when working around it as severing one of the tubes could send out water under enough pressure to pierce skin.
One day as I was organizing the taps in that lab, one of the grads tried to log into the computer controlling the arm. For some reason, the computer kept asking for all of the necessary BIOD information every time it was rebooted — what hard drives are installed, what type of video card, etc. (this was before plug-and-play was common, so everything had to be entered by hand). Usually, you’d do this the first time you install the machine then never have to deal with it again. As I listened to him swear and complain, I casually turned around and said, “You need to replace the BIOS battery – it’s dead.” The computer – a Gateway – used a rechargeable 9-volt battery to maintain BIOS state between boots. The battery had apparently run out of juice, probably because it had been a long while since anyone had turned on the computer. I recommended they keep the computer on over night and the problem would be fixed. Failing that, they’d have to buy a new 9-volt rechargeable and pop it in.
Sure enough, that fixed the problem. Prof. Kazerooni, hearing about all this, immediately promoted me to computer guy. He wanted me to sit down with the grad students to learn everything I could about the arm so that I could learn to program it. He also wanted me to learn C. I was elated. I spent some time debugging some of the code the grads had already written, learned how to solder circuits and some other general, basic stuff. It was amazing.
Unfortunately, my grades were slipping and it was looking more and more like the whole ME thing just wasn’t going to work out for me. Eventually, I just stopped going to the lab altogether as I tried to get my academic act in order. When I was asked to leave the college, I was stunned and heartbroken. Eventually, everything worked out and, here I am, being the computer geek I always was and making a decent penny at it.
At the time, all that stuff was cool, but I couldn’t really see where it would all go. Now, every time I hear about something like Aerogel, nanotechnology or robotic suits and how very cutting edge it all is, I think back to the fact that all this was happening at Cal when I was a freshman and sophomore. It must have been absolute bleeding edge then. I never really realized that I was standing next to the forefront of technology. Well, at least I have my stories to tell.