Back and forth, and ‘round and ‘round

Aug. 1, 2000
Everyone has talent. It may not always be recognized as such, but it’s there – somewhere

Everyone has talent. It may not always be recognized as such, but it’s there – somewhere.

I knew a guy back in the 1970s, for example, who could swallow lit cigarettes. Actually he didn’t swallow them, he hid them in his mouth. I saw him do it many times. With the dexterity of a machine, he’d drop his jaw, upending a halfsmoked Marlboro or Winston, and then he’d retract it ember and all under his palate as he closed his lips. The reverse cycle was just as spectacular.

My talent isn’t quite so on-the-edge. What I do is take complex subjects most people don’t care about and make them clear and understandable. It’s amazing just how many opportunities there are for this sort of thing.

Let’s say I’m having some neighbors over for a grill out and while we’re socializing someone poses a question about electronic bandgap theory. Ordinarily, this would kill a gathering, but when I’m around, this is when the party starts.

Without hesitation I spring up like Phil Donohue and ask for a volunteer. Before anyone has a chance to respond, however, I select the person with his hand in the cooler. “You’re gonna be the electron,” I say, as I spin him around to make him even dizzier. Then I get the rest of the group to line up in rows and columns, telling them they’re the atoms.

With my arm around the electron, I walk down the aisles, explaining that one of two things can happen to a charged particle moving through an atomic structure. Stepping into the place of an atom – a lattice site if you will – I show that I could either apprehend the electron (putting a good chokehold on my neighbor) or repel it (shoving him gently into another volunteer).

In summing up I say, “Obviously if ‘Joe’ wants to get past me, he’ll have to walk at just the right pace. Otherwise, he won’t have enough momentum to break my grasp (if he goes too slow), or he’ll be too easy to knock off his feet in his tipsy condition (if he’s too hasty). In much the same way, an electron can have only a certain amount of energy or it’s going to be sucked in by an atom or forced off-course until it collides with one. This is what they’re getting at when they talk about quantum energy levels, electron states, and bandgap physics.”

If there are no questions at that point, I might expound a bit, trying to stimulate further discussion. “When you think about it,” I’d say, “matter is a highly tuned system of particles that really don’t want to be together. I’ve often wondered how it congealed from independent constituents and how it remains, in tune. What I find even more perplexing is that you and I, the result of the unaided organization of this same matter, can sit here discussing it over cokes and burgers.”

But this is the real world. I can’t expect every explanation to go so smoothly. Even the cigarette guy got burned a few times.

Someone will ask, as people often do, the one question I dread; the one impenetrable complexity for which I’ve never given a satisfactory answer. “So what do you do for a living, Berardinis?”

I’d rather field any inquiry than that. “What does a quark look like?” “Where does the universe end?” “Where do clouds come from?” Anything, please, but not my occupation. I’ve been down that road before and it ends in despair. Surely, as a system designer, you know what I’m talking about.

Most people seem to be able to grasp that I’m an engineer, and that I write and edit articles for a trade magazine. But when I mention motion system design, I usually draw blank stares. Then I panic.

Sometimes I’ll elaborate and say, “it has to do with things that go ‘round and ‘round and back and forth.” Changing the subject is also an option.

This issue of Motion System Design, by the way, has a lot of good material on the “back and forth” stuff, or for the initiated mind, linear motion. The highlight, although there are many interesting articles throughout the magazine, is a special pullout section on linear actuation. This is the second in a series. In November, we’ll bring you an in-depth report on packaging technology that will go ‘round and ‘round and back and forth.

In the meantime, don’t forget about Motion Systems Technology Week and the IMET show coming to Chicago. They’re just around the corner, October 10 to 12.

– Larry Berardinis
[email protected]

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