Why Engineer? Chapter 3 Part 3 — What Can You Only Learn on the Job?

Here’s something extra that they don’t teach in school. Some things are so complicated and lacking in answers that they require quite a bit of study before you reach a decision about how to treat them. And the odd thing is that your can study and study and eventually find that you have the answer you need, but all the things that you learned are useless. It’s as though you become smarter and smarter and finally come to the conclusion that all you learned was a waste of time — and then you really are smart.

Here’s an example. I once had to design heat exchangers that transferred heat from water to an agricultural waste slurry (a mix of solid particles and water). The viscosity of the slurry was unknown, indeed not predictable for every case. So, I started ordering articles and books from the company library on everything I could find on heat transfer involving slurries. Nothing fit my case. I worked at it over several months and learned a lot about things I would never use. And then it hit me. Pretty much every slurry in the studies I read absorbed heat better than water. So if I designed the heat exchangers as though they were dealing only with water, the result would be at least as good as I needed. So, all the knowledge I had gained was ultimately not applicable, but I now knew how to make the designs work. You climb the knowledge curve until you fall off. That’s when you finally get smart.

I’ve seen this happen several times in my career. Just beat around in the dark until you find that one little light switch.

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