Mad Scientess Jane Expat (nanila) wrote,
Mad Scientess Jane Expat

The Tale of The Engineer & The Professor

The Engineer & The Professor

I'd like to introduce you all to someone. He's the smiling chap on the left. His name is Trevor Beek and I work with him in the magnetometer lab at Imperial.

I recently read a section in CP Snow's The Two Cultures, a transcription of his 1959 Rede lecture at Cambridge, which reminds me of Trevor. Snow mainly intended to illustrate humanities' and sciences' understanding - or as he saw it, lack thereof - of one another. This paragraph draws attention to a different set of attitudes that I'm sorry to say still prevails in academic society.

"Pure scientists have by and large been dim-witted about engineers and applied science. They couldn't get interested. They wouldn't recognize that many of the problems were as intellectually exacting as pure problems and that many of the solutions were as satisfying and beautiful. Their instinct - perhaps sharpened in this country by the passion to find a new snobbism wherever possible, and to invent one if it doesn't exist - was to take it for granted that applied science was an occupation for second-rate minds. I say this more sharply because thirty years ago I took precisely that line myself. The climate of thought of young research workers in Cambridge then was not to our credit. We prided ourselves that the science we were doing could not, in any conceivable circumstances, have any practical use. The more firmly one could make that claim, the more superior one felt."

By these standards, Trevor is not a very important man. But one person who certainly doesn't hold such an arrogant and ill-conceived opinion about the nature of engineering is the man on the right, Professor Andre Balogh. Trevor has spent 44 of Prof. Balogh's 45 years working with him at Imperial. Trevor has had a hand in building every instrument that has gone into space and been used by the Space Physics group. When he solders a component to a breadboard, it does exactly what it's supposed to do. There are bits of his electronics handiwork orbiting an alarmingly high number of the bodies in our solar system. As an ex-colleague was fond of saying, if the aliens ever decide to clone humans from the cells they find aboard our spacecraft, the probability that they'll generate Trevor is rather high.

It continues to amaze me that there are postgraduate students and postdocs in our group who go through the three or four years of their PhDs or fellowships, using the data that would not exist without him, and don't know who Trevor is. One of the best things about him is that he sincerely doesn't care. I recently heard him say, "I'm the guy in the background. Nobody knows who I am and that's the way I like it." This is a man who has 787 scientific citations to his name. Seven hundred and eighty-seven. That is a number which a good many researchers would happily give up a kidney to have. Again, he doesn't care. It's not important. If there were a Coolness Factor (like an inverse Impact Factor) for academic achievement, the top of the scale would be measured by Trevor Beek. He loves his unassuming life, sitting with his colleagues at lunchtime, talking about old Bond films and giving advice on the best fish to put in your garden pond.

Although he could retire this year, he's just reducing his hours. Like most people who enjoy their work, he doesn't really want to retire yet. I expect to raise a glass of whisky with him many more times before he goes. And if you have a drink or three this weekend, I hope you'll give a little wave in London's direction in honour of this creative, productive engineer who's used his life's work to make it possible to conduct science research in space.
Tags: imperial
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