Thursday, August 5, 2010

WTF Does a Rocket Scientist Do All Day?

Like a lot of you on the wrong side of 30 (but on the good side of 34), I have two different types of friends: One group is the type with ill-advised tattoos who think alcoholism is a riot and talk about their band — or some other wiener band — non-stop, and think it’s cute to be poor; the other type are doctors and lawyers and scientists with kids who own houses, and are just all around much better people than I’ll ever be. Except the lawyers.

So my friend here is a fucking rocket scientist. Or something. Anyway, I asked my friend what it’s like making bombs that murder innocent brown babies just because their version of Superman is different than ours. Just kidding, he doesn’t do that. Or does he?

SBTVC: I’m not entirely sure what it is you do, because whenever I see you we’re both pretending we can still drink like we did when we were 20, and then we either talk about The Big Lebowski non-stop or else I complain about my job of deleting emails from publicists all day until everyone gets bummed out. For real though, what the fuck do you do all day? What is the name of your job even called?

ROCKET SCIENTIST: So I work for a really big company that makes big and small airplanes, spaceships, lasers, airplanes with lasers, missiles, helicopters, bombs, radars, radios (walkie-talkie kind), huge rockets for launching spaceships into outer space, space shuttles, and probably a lot of other stuff too. My company hired me as an engineer / scientist a few years back. I thought that was a good title because I went to school and got a physics degree and an electrical engineering degree, making me both an engineer and a scientist. About every other year my title changes. I have been a product engineer, a systems engineer, a test engineer, and now I’m an electro-physics engineer. I think that I have almost come full circle in the titles but my work has remained the same. There must be some dude who gets paid to come up with new names for what I do. He probably does it because it’s kind of difficult to say exactly what it is that I do other than I make stuff that has to do with lasers and optics.

I should interview that guy! So, har har, it’s not exactly rocket science right? Or is it?

I used to work with a lot of rocket scientists. They used to always say, “It isn’t rocket science… Oh wait, it is.” I don’t even think that they thought it was funny after a while but I think they felt obligated to say it.

Walk me through your day. You check your emails, then go build a missile? Don’t you ride a bike to work? I like the idea of a guy who builds spaceship lasers riding a bike to work for some reason.

I don’t really have a typical day. I have a couple labs that I am responsible for. One is in a Cold War era building that is located in a Dr. Evil like facility / camp on top of a mountain. The other labs and offices are spread around the city that I live in. We have some bad traffic here so when I have to go to some of the more distant locations that I work at, I ride my bicycle instead of sitting in my car for over an hour.

Regardless of how I get to work I’m rarely in before 10. I usually get to my desk and check some emails, maybe look at Facebook a bit, and definitely check the news on Slashdot. After that I’m ready for some light work. Light work would entail going in the lab and starting up the equipment (warming up the laser, turning on the oscilloscopes, etc.) or organizing the data from the previous day. I take my lab work pretty slow when I first get in. The lasers that I work with are kind of dangerous. They could burn a person or permanently blind you if you aren’t careful around them. So I take my time and pay attention to what I’m doing. I usually take lunch before I get to the meat of the experiment of the day.

I spend a lot of time warming up the laser at my job too, if you know what I mean. Penis-wise…. So there you are, it’s after lunch, now what?

I consider myself a jack of all trades. I know some physics. I can write computer programs to control lab instruments and hardware. I know some principles of engineering. I write reports and give presentations. I can sketch up a circuit and solder it together when needed. But I do all of these things to enable me to get some test results. Some days I may be attempting to find a way to measure the spectral characteristics of a laser beam with greater accuracy and precision than is available with the current state-of-the-art methods. Other days I try to find ways of detecting IEDs and landmines using lasers and microwave beams. Usually we don’t get to work in the A.M. and decide to build a missile. It takes a lot of thinking about the problem and breaking it down into manageable pieces. Then day-by-day I do experiments and tests to verify that each piece of the solution will work.

I give you crap sometimes about making bombs, but is that what you really do? You’re a really nice guy IRL, so if so, do you ever feel weird about that?

If you have been giving me crap about making bombs, it hasn’t offended or upset me. I fully realize that I am part of the military industrial machine. I think that I’m a conscientious and loving person, and at times I contemplate my role in humanity. Sometimes I feel a little weird being part of the machine, but I’m at ease with the products that I have made and their use. I haven’t made anything that kills. Most of the stuff I work on helps to prevent people from getting killed.

Is the company you work for evil?

I haven’t encountered any evilness in my company firsthand. I’ve heard some stories and we now have to take ethics training each year because of some of the things that the execs did, but I think that my company is not evil.

What is the weirdest thing you’ve had to deal with on the job? Also, are there aliens?

Most of the really weird things that I have seen are classified, but I think that they are way crazy. I guess you will just have to take my word for it. Feel free to imagine and insert here your own version of a weird science-y thing and I will neither confirm nor deny its existence.

So you’re not necessarily saying that aliens don’t exist. Got it. What are the mundane things you go through every day that people probably don’t know about?

I don’t know if this is really mundane but I don’t think that people realize just how much failure there is in science and engineering. I think that to be good at this job you have to be willing to be wrong or have you ideas fail time after time, yet keep confident and learn from the outcome of each test or experiment.

Is there normal office politics in the place you work? Do people talk about what they’re going to have for lunch all day? Do people gossip about each other? Anyone banging on the job that you know of?

There’s office talk that revolves around science stuff. Scientist and engineers are kind of nerdy in general. I think that we are sensitive to being made fun of for our nerdy appearances and mannerisms. We tend to stay away from gossip that hits on those easy targets. Instead the negative gossip is usually like, “Dude, Larry doesn’t know how to set the boundary conditions for that magnetic levitation experiment. He’s so dumb.” As far as banging goes, it’s mostly dudes around here. Nerdy ones at that. We can’t really talk about sex without blushing and breaking into a cold sweat, so we avoid the topic.

What’s the shitter like in a lab like yours? Normal shitter or have you got new shitter science we don’t know about yet?

The shitter in our lab building is a normal stall configuration with those automatic flushing sensors. We have automatic sinks too. Sometimes ghosts set the sinks off while I’m taking a dump. Being a shy pooper, that kind of interruption really throws me off. I should get a team of guys working to prevent those false call sink activations. I wonder how those things work? Maybe I should take one apart and see.


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