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Mad Scientess Jane Expat

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The Tale of The Engineer & The Professor [20091120|15:48]
Mad Scientess Jane Expat
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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.
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: chickenfeet2003
2009-11-20 16:21 (UTC)
I feel rather ambivalent about Snow. All his work seems to centre on how much cleverer he is than everyone else. Strangers and Brothers has rather aptly been described as "A Dance to the Music of Time written by Widmerpool."
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2009-11-24 22:03 (UTC)
I am afraid that both halves of that metaphor went flying over my head. I've only read one of his novels. It seemed to me to be a strikingly clear portrayal of a very small group of people in a very specific time period in an extraordinarily restricted setting. Their behaviour was beautifully consistent and quite human within this limited scope, but I was left feeling rather dissatisfied and also slightly chilled, as if I'd sat in one position staring into a snow globe for too long.
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[User Picture]From: chickenfeet2003
2009-11-24 22:08 (UTC)
Well that could be pretty much any of the novels set in Cambridge!
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[User Picture]From: anthrokeight
2009-11-20 16:22 (UTC)
It could just be the mood I'm in, but this made me a bit weepy. Yay Trevor and Andre! Yay for the last name "Beek." (Beek! Beek, beek, beek! Say it many times! Beek!)

And also yay for space research!

Also, could they *be* any cuter? I wish to wrap them in bubble wrap and keep them for later.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2009-11-24 21:57 (UTC)
Yes! They're lovely. It is a happy place to be, standing with a glass of wine in hand and listening to those two tell old stories.
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[User Picture]From: senusert
2009-11-20 18:41 (UTC)
Trevor is awesome.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2009-11-24 21:53 (UTC)
He is indeed. :-)
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[User Picture]From: hafnir
2009-11-20 19:25 (UTC)
The whole audience at MIT used to wince aloud when Mitch scoffs in Real Genius "Let the engineers figure it out".

Edited at 2009-11-20 07:26 pm (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2009-11-24 21:54 (UTC)
Physicists think physicists are better than every other kind of scientist or engineer. And every other kind of scientist and engineer would agree: physicists do indeed think they're better than every other kind of scientist. ;-D
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[User Picture]From: hafnir
2009-11-24 22:09 (UTC)
What if you're both like me? Then again, not sure if you'd count a BS in Physics as a physicist. Then again, I don't really use most of what I learned in engineering, either....
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From: pbristow
2009-11-21 17:19 (UTC)
Trevor seems to be a popular name for unsung engineers. So does Ray: The BBC Radiophonic Workshop was blessed with two Rays (Ray White and Ray Riley), both essential to the work; both rarely mentioned in publicity.

My Dad's names, interestingly enough, are Raymond and Trevor, in that order. He used to work for Phillips Service, back in the days when domestic video recorders were first introduced (and hellishly expensive, and rather temperamental), and only rich people (or the lucky families of Phillips Service staff!) had them. But does internationally famous muso Rod Stewart ever acknowledge the man who kept his VCR working in the mid 70s? Does he hell... =;o}


Edited at 2009-11-21 05:22 pm (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2009-11-24 22:08 (UTC)
You know, I look forward to the day when you write your Unsung Engineering Heroes of the BBC & Beyond biographic series. And if you don't plan to, you should.
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[User Picture]From: nationofsheep
2009-11-21 17:22 (UTC)
I have a lot of thoughts about this having made more than half my career as the technical link between phd geologists and licensed engineers. But I will leave it with a toast to an engineer even I should have heard of before.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2009-11-24 21:52 (UTC)
Aw, you shouldn't have heard of him before. That's the whole idea! And I haven't told him about this journal post - he'd be dreadfully embarrassed.
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[User Picture]From: sneakypeteiii
2009-11-21 19:50 (UTC)
You post reminds me of Ken Libbrecht, unsung master of all things electronic, heliospherical, and snow-related.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2009-11-24 21:51 (UTC)
Ooh, I'll have to see if I can get hold of his books. Thanks!
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2009-11-24 21:51 (UTC)
PS Have you picked a job yet?
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[User Picture]From: sneakypeteiii
2009-11-25 16:33 (UTC)
Yeah, I'm going to USC to work with some oceanographers. Just got the official offer letter yesterday. More details when I finally 'announce' it. Also turned in my thesis on Monday! woot.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2009-11-26 19:20 (UTC)
Awesome! Congratulations. Look forward to hearing the details.
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[User Picture]From: returntosender
2009-11-22 08:51 (UTC)
I loved reading this.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2009-11-24 21:48 (UTC)
Thank you. ♥
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From: (Anonymous)
2009-12-11 17:16 (UTC)

Trevor

I think it ought to be known that after the utter disaster that was Cluster 1, the power supplies that Trevor designed and built for the magnetometer still worked after surviving an Arianne5 explosion and a month in a swamp in French Guianna. Now that is engineering..

And he's my mate!

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[User Picture]From: nanila
2009-12-13 20:22 (UTC)
Someone should write his biography. I believe it would be fascinating.
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