Thursday, May 16, 2013


I always wanted to be a scientist … or a teacher who taught science. I had that desire from a very early age; so early I can’t put a year to it. I do remember my first science fiction story, “Have Spacesuit, Will Travel,” by Robert Heinlein. Science Fiction was part of my “science” thing that began early. I got the book at the public library.

I know “Have Spacesuit …” was published in 1958 when I was 11 years old, but I have a letter from a professor at Stanford giving me a geology book in 1957. That was based on my interest in science from when he stayed at our motel in the summer doing geological work in central Montana.

So I put the start of my interest prior to that, making me 9 or 10 and in the fourth or fifth grade. Maybe it was sooner, I don’t know. I remember that my first goal was to be an astronomer. That probably went along with the science fiction I was reading. There are several other events I recall from elementary school time that reinforced my recollection of that early interest in science. Some were gifts. My parents gave me a record making machine. It consisted of a plastic disk you put in the center of a turntable over the top of blank record disks that came with the set. There was an arm with a pin that rode in groves in the center disk and a cutting needle connected to a microphone.

I know we lived at the motel at that time, so it was sometime between 1956 and 1960. I remember recording a “lecture” on Einstein’s theory of relativity and specifically the physics behind the limit of the speed of light. In my lecture, I performed my own personal Gedankenexperimente (or thought experiment as the German Einstein would say).

I described a large rocket ship with multiple engines going at a speed very near that of light. I proposed that you add one more rocket engine and explained why that would not push the rocket beyond the light-speed barrier. It is due to the increase in mass as you approach the speed of light. As you get closer and closer, your mass keeps increasing, so adding more velocity only increases the mass requiring even more rocket engines and you can’t get past the speed-of-light no matter how many additional engines are added.

I have no idea where I learned about Einstein and relativity other than the public library and science fiction and science nonficition books that I read back then. I know I was a avid reader and science was my only interest … I wasn’t reading the classics of literature.

I also remember a science set that my grandparents bought for me. It was a series of kits that arrived each month for about six or nine months. Each kit had tons of experiments and gadgets you would build that covered everything from electricity to optics to geology. My dad bought me a quality microscope from Edmund Scientific, and I bought tons of chemistry stuff at a local hobby shop.

My brother and I shared a large bedroom — a giant bedroom — in the basement of the motel under the new office my dad built. It had a small attached room for the water heater. I put in benches and lots of chemistry glassware and wooden test tube holders. I had lots of experiments going in that laboratory, and I put everything under the microscope.

Then my dad bought me a used Hallencrafters Short-wave receiver, and I became very interested in ham radio and electronics. At about 12 years old I was subscribed to “Popular Electronics” and I built a lot of electronic projects out of that magazine. I would order parts and chassis and stuff from Lafeyette Electronics in Chicago, and I saved up and bought a larger Hallencrafters radio and did that all through Junior and Senior High School.

At the end of the first year in Junior High, the seventh grade, we had an awards ceremony. I won an academic letter for my grades, but what really caught my eye was that some eighth grader got the “Outstanding Science Student of the Year” award. I made it my solemn goal to win that award in eighth grade.

I befriended the science teacher and spent a lot of time at his house. He had an excellent astronomical telescope, and I enjoyed the Montana evenings star gazing. I had a journal all through eighth grade science that I recorded my experiments and projects and I got A’s in all my classes. At the awards ceremony at the end of the year, I won a pin for my second year of academic achievement and I was the proud winner of the “Outstanding Science Student” award. It is a beautiful blue ribbon pin with a microscope on the silver pendant. I’ve still got it here in my little collection of memorabilia.

Things were to change though once I entered High School. We had a four year school with Freshman, Sophomore, Junior, and Senior grades. At that time in Montana, you could get your drivers license at 15. The summer after Junior High my grandma helped me buy my first motorcycle, and I rode it until the cops insisted I stop or they'd take it away. So I waited somewhat impatiently for my birthday to roll around so I could get my official license.

As my friends all started driving that Freshman year, my interest in school declined. I often explain that I got distracted by “wine, women, and song,” but not necessarily in that order. The distraction started a bit in Junior High. I did a lot of dating and going to dance parties in seventh and eighth grade. No alcohol, just girls and dancing. I had an agate ring … everyone in Montana had an agate ring … and I was going steady with one girl after another. I’d go to a party going steady with one girl, break-up, get my ring back, and be going steady with a second before the end of the party. Those really were the “good old days.”

By High School the partying got a little more serious. I discovered beer and got more involved with music and just quit doing homework. I was smart enough to get by without a lot of studying, but the A’s became B’s and even sometimes C’s. Still, I did take the toughest classes … the so-called “College Prep” curriculum, but I rarely made the honor role and just didn’t really care. Too much fun I guess.

After High School, naturally I went to college, but where to go? I had considered Stanford or Cal Poly and even DeVry Institute in Chicago. But, I didn’t have any serious plans and my dad suggested the Montana School of Mines, so off I went. I was even a worse student there. Not only didn’t I study, I didn’t even go to class. I was playing guitar, drinking beer, hitch hiking to different towns on the weekend, and the only reason I lasted all year was that it took two semesters for me to fully flunk out. I took Calculus and Chemistry and all the tough subjects the first semester and the only class I passed was Weight Lifting … a PE class. The second semester I took history and sociology and economics, all those fluffy courses, but again I didn’t go to class and flunked everything … except Weight Lifting. What a waste of my parent's money.

I didn’t care. As long as I had a couple of beers, a car, my guitar, friends and girls, it was a blast. Of course this was at the start of the Vietnam war, and I was soon drafted. I broke my arm in a car accident, so the military was delayed a year, but, by the time I was 20, I was in the Navy. I still wanted to go scientific and loved electronics, so I enlisted for six years on a deal that the Navy would give me two full years of electronics training.

I was very successful in that training, graduating top in my class from every Navy school except one, where I graduated second. Because of my good grades, I was enrolled in a special Air Force school and learned electronic test equipment calibration at the National Bureau of Standards in Boulder. While in school I also got to do some teaching and really enjoyed that.

While in the Navy I took a couple of classes at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, but I was still into partying and music, so that wasn’t really a focus although I got good grades. I got out of the Navy, moved to Colorado, found a job working as an electronics technician, and started studying electronics at Metropolitan State College.

During the latter part of that schooling, I was working as a teacher at Electronics Technical Institute and getting straight A’s in college. Maybe it was because of my background from the Navy and my experience teaching, often teaching the same text book that I used as a student at the college, but I just breezed through the math and science and even the English and liberal arts courses. The only class I didn’t get an A in was a one credit course that was part of “Senior Project.” My project design only got a B. I did get an A in the second semester when I built the project, and the professor even said he wished he’d given me a better grade in the first semester.

So I graduated from Metro with a Bachelor’s degree in Electronics Engineering. I had a 3.97 GPA and graduated Summa Cum Laude — with highest honors. All through school I got scholarships and awards, and I seemed to really be on my way.

I went to work for IBM, but I still had some years left on my GI Bill, so I enrolled at the University of Colorado pursuing a Master's degree in mathematics with a minor in physics. But now things changed. Graduate math courses were very, very hard. I struggled and only got B’s and even a few C’s. One professor told me I was in the wrong class. I was taking “Advanced Calculus” and he said I should take “Advanced Calculus for Scientists and Engineers.” He said that would be easier and better fit my background and undergrad degree.

I explained that I had changed my major and was working on a Master's in Math. He just shrugged. I did better in the physics classes, but the math was always hard … very, very hard for me.

I recall taking an “Abstract Algebra” class. I would start on the homework with problem one. If I couldn’t figure it out, I moved on to problem two expecting to come back to problem one. I did the same with problems two, three, and four. By the time I got to the last problem, I realized I had not figured out a single question … I had skipped them all. It was at this time I discovered the public library as a quiet place to study.

IBM had a video education program with Colorado State University and it was free, so I started taking Abstract Algebra at CSU at the same time I was taking it at CU. Having two different perspectives from two different teachers helped a bit, and I ended up with a C in the first semester at CU. I buckled down and doubled down the second semester and got a B. To this day I’m prouder of that B than all the A’s I ever got.

I did finish with an acceptable GPA of 3.04, but that was more due to my A’s in physics that made up for C’s in math. I did think I was getting better toward the end and one professor said that my grades in the last few classes were surprising considering my earlier progress. It was a small college (part of a large university) and I had several professors more than once.

My lack of success was not due to the quality of teaching, but it was my difficulty. I did all this college part-time while working full-time. That, plus the GI Bill and scholarships, and even tuition assistance from IBM the last three years made it no problem financially. That was important because I had a family and needed to makes ends meet. However, I do think full-time school and a total immersion in the curriculum would have helped me with the math. Still, I made it.

Meanwhile I was doing very well at work and moving into new fields and being very successful. I joined IBM Technical Education and, for fourteen years, I taught IBMers and customers. It was during this time that I changed careers from Electronics Engineer to Software Engineer. That’s a story for another blog, but it did create a problem for me since my formal training was not programming, with the exception of a few Pascal classes.

However, my travel schedule with Tech Ed prevented my from going back to college. IBM gave me a lot of classes and I ended up graduating from IBM’s University Level Computer Science program, but I wanted more. What I really desired was a doctorate.

The problem was that I had done so many different things, I could not decide what area I wanted to get a Ph.D. in. I considered Electronics Engineering, but I hadn’t done that for ten or more years. I considered math, but my struggle with my Master’s sort of cooled those jets. Plus I hadn’t used my math in ten or twenty years, so it was rusty. I also thought about a Ph.D. in Education, specifically "Instructional Design," something I had a lot of experience in and had even published. But there was no way I could go back to college with my travel schedule.

Finally, I decided to get another Master’s in Computer Science. I left IBM Education and went to work in IBM Printing Systems running the software testing lab. I enrolled at the University of Denver and got my CompSci Master’s in 2003. I didn’t get straight A’s, but I did quite well, graduating with a 3.53 GPA. No high honors, but, again, it was night school attended by a full-time worker, and I did miss a few classes due to business travel, so I was happy with the result.

Upon retirement some ten more years later, I’ve finally gotten myself into a Ph.D. program at one of the most prestigious universities in the country: Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. I’m currently preparing for my qualification exams or “quals,” and I’ve struggled a lot with some of the subjects. I'm pursuing a degree in physics. The problem appeared to be related to the mathematics, so I’ve changed direction slightly and I’m now taking some more math courses before I return to the advanced physics. I’ve had to reset my expectations and I’m dealing with the fact that my undergraduate and graduate work was so many years ago. It’s coming back, but a lot slower than I expected.

So that’s the story of my roller coaster ride. I went from flunking out of the School of Mines to graduating from Navy technical school at the top. I got a job teaching and earned a Bachelor’s degree summa cum laude.

I then struggled with math and barely survived my first experience of graduate school.

Twenty years later I earned a second Master’s degree, again in a subject I was already well trained, graduating in the top 10% (I think … they didn’t have rankings). So it’s been down — up — down — up … and now I’m on a downer.

When I first started at Stanford the classes went well. I zoomed through classical physics, running into a little trouble with Lagrangian and Hamiltonian Dynamics, but I no longer seek straight A’s, so I survived. I then hit a bit of a brick wall, and had to regroup in January. That has gone pretty well with finals next week.

I have a conference call with my adviser today at 9:00. Soon I’ll know. Wish me luck.

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