Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Different toolsets

At one point in Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman he mentions how he taught himself Calculus from a really old textbook. This turned out to help him a great deal, everyone else learned the same methods to solve problems, but he learned different ones. Every so often he would encounter a problem that was simple his way, but almost impossible using more common methods. This would allow him to solve problems that stumped some brilliant people, helping him make a name for himself.

I feel like I am encountering a similar situation. I am surrounded with power engineers. For the most part they are damn good power engineers but typically they have all learned the same subjects. This means that as an electrical engineer it is really hard to make a contribution, but it also means that where they get stuck is often when the problem is not an electrical engineering one. When that happens often a little Chemistry, Math or Physics knowledge can make a big difference.

This came up at an IEEE meeting I recently attended about a standard. In a room of about 30 electrical engineers they brought up a materials science problem in the standard. They had a table showing the specific heat of a composite material. No one had any clue where this data was coming from, so they were considering taking it out.

Now, this wasn't a hard problem. Any Chemist or Materials Engineer could have given an answer in a few hours at most. But there just weren't any in the room. So the other day I went ahead and did the math, confirmed the table was correct, and found mistakes in the standard that had been there for at least thirty years making it impossible to reproduce the values in the table as they describe.

While it is still unclear if my changes will be added, two of the leading engineers have agreed with my math, and none objected, so it almost certainly will make the next revision. For a recent graduate to correct a similar error in Electrical Engineering would probably not happen. Just too many good Electrical Engineers had seen it. But I doubt one person with a Chemistry degree had ever read the standard making those mistakes much easier to fix.

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