Physics, Machining, and Luck

I lucked out. Through no fault or credit of my own, I learned physics and machining, both at a pretty high level. They have been marvelous tools, though I didn’t earn a living doing either.

Going into physics was stupid luck. I did well in science in grade school, and I liked it. I also read a ton of science fiction, the entire science fiction section of the local library, which was pretty good, as the librarian saw science fiction as a way of getting boys to read. Pretty enlightened, huh?

OK, so I’ll go into science. Easy, right?

Not so fast. There are a lot of sciences. Why physics? Why not genetics, or astrophysics, or oceanography, or whatever? Well, when I went to a small college-prep high school, they only had three sciences: Biology, Chemistry, and Physics.

Biology? No, thanks. I may be one of the few people to graduate high school and college and grad school without any biology instruction at all. Nada. Zip. Carving up dead frogs and stuff? Nope.

What about Chemistry? I learned something really important in high school Chemistry, and that is carrying units in equations. If the units worked out, you probably did the equation right. If the units didn’t work out, you had definitely screwed up somewhere. But Chemistry includes smelly things, things that can burn you without even being hot, and glassware. And glassware meant doing dishes. My parents believed children should have chores to do, and I already had experience doing dishes. Not interested.

So Physics. Call it a lack of imagination, but, since Physics was my favorite of those three available high school classes, I went into physics. Besides, physics was the cool science through the 1950s and 1960s.

Machining was also just dumb luck. A family friend owned a machine shop, and my dad was a Master Tool & Die Maker. I had a job whenever I wanted. It sure beat bagging groceries, or stocking shelves in the middle of the night, or slinging burgers at McDonalds. I started by taking things apart, replacing worn parts, and putting them back together. No manuals or instructions or anything like that. Just do it. I haven’t been afraid to take anything apart since, and it has resulted in calling in the professionals to put it back together less frequently than you might think.

I moved up into piece-part machining. Someone would come in with the driveshaft of a truck that had been twisted like taffy and broken, for instance. Usually this would happen when the driver’s wet shoe slipped off the clutch pedal when the engine was run up and he had a load on. We had to fix it. To do that, you have to save the end pieces, the pieces that have the weird shapes on them that hold the U-joints. So you cut the ends off, and then you machine the remnants of the tubing part off the end pieces. You rough-cut a new piece of tubing to a bit over the length you need, machine the ends square to the exact length you need, and hand-fit the end caps. Then you call the boss and he welds the end caps on. Voila! New driveshaft.

Ultimately I got into production machining, riding herd on one of the big automated machines that turned out part after part after part on their own. You need to keep the parts in spec, keep an eye on your cutters, replacing them as needed, and anticipate when to replace cutters based on the sound and amperage of the machine and the way the part size was drifting within the spec.

So I ended up leaving grad school with an excellent academic background in physics and a lot of practical machining experience. And, after the first year or so, never made a living doing either.

But they were such marvelous tools.

Physics taught me the basics of how things work on the micro level. Electricity and mechanics and optics, propulsion and luminance and structure — the very underpinnings of reality. Machining taught me the basics of how things work on the macro level. Machinery and hydraulics and materials, tools and methods and tolerances.

Each subject teaches you a certain way to think about things, its own way to think about things, and together these two ways of thinking are very powerful.

I’ve been talking with a friend about this recently, and I think the best way I can sum up the difference having a machining background makes is this: When someone without a machining background has a problem to solve, he may think, “Is there a tool I can use to solve this?” whereas a person with a machining background will think, “Is there a tool I can make to solve this?” The ability to think in terms of tools — not just existing tools, but tools one can make — to solve a problem has been of great use throughout my career.

And the methods of machining — resolving a large problem into a series of small steps, some of which may simply be preparations for a later step, or building a tool needed for a later step — have been applicable to everything I’ve done in my career.

Physics, too, has been a big help. Physics at its core is a search, through experimentation, for basic principles. Once known, those basic principles can be applied over and over, to many different kinds of problems. Learning physics teaches you to think in terms of basic principles, in terms of rules, and how those rules can be used to solve problems. Approaching a problem for me always brings up those questions. What are the basic principles in play here? How can those basic principles be used, combined, and applied to find a solution?

So I got into both physics and machining through sheer dumb luck. Each taught me its own way of thinking. I have used both ways of thinking throughout a forty-year career that has ranged widely across technology, business, and law. And both have served me well, though, after my first year out of college, I didn’t make a living in either occupation.

I can highly recommend both.

And luck doesn’t hurt, either.

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