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Hydrogen Properties for Energy Research (HYPER) Lab jacob.leachman

The test of time — to reach someone

Now that we have a framework for both social thermodynamics in equilibrium and in non-equilibrium transport we have an interesting opportunity to test the consistency of both through the time domain. This is enabled by the correlation between thermodynamic and transport properties — one of the greatest unsolved challenges in thermophysical properties is a direct derivation of transport properties from thermodynamic properties. Only recently has the residual entropy — the entropy that emerges due to real fluid intermolecular exchanges — been shown to be a powerful scaling tool to help with this challenge. This observation seams obvious in social space as the empathy that emerges during group exchange is powerful for efficient communication.

The diffusion properties directly compare thermodynamic and transport properties within a single variable. Through a juxtapose of thermal property trends with transport property trends, and comparing the combination, we may gain new insight on whether this framework transformation is remaining useful.

The Basics of Thermal Diffusion

One of the more interesting and important problems in my traditional cryogenics research is understanding how thermal diffusivity affects the time it takes a thermal wave to propagate through a material, also known as the thermal diffusion time constant. Thermal diffusivity (α) is a very interesting property that combines both thermodynamic properties (density ρ and heat capacity Cp) and a transport property (thermal conductivity k) via the equation:

α = k / ρ Cp

Thermal diffusivity, like all diffusion coefficients, has units of (m^2/s). From this you can calculate a parameter known as the thermal diffusion time constant (tau) for the time it takes a thermal wave to move through a length (L) through a bar of constant cross sectional area of uniform material via the equation:

tau= L^2/(4*α)

In other words, it’s the time it takes the change of some external condition (in this case temperature) to propagate through and be felt on the other side of something. With this equation you can quickly estimate the time it will take a system to respond to a step change in temperature at a boundary and it’s sensitive! For example, the difference in thermal diffusivity between copper and plastic at cryogenic temperatures changes a 10 minute equilibration time to a 19 year(!!) equilibration time — so many stories…

How can that happen? Here’s a figure that shows how heat capacity (left panel), thermal conductivity (center panel), control the thermal diffusivity (right panel). These are from Jack Ekin’s book, which I can’t recommend more highly, on cryogenic materials: Plastics retain a large heat capacity at cryogenic temperatures because of the very long polymer chains with many small ways to store energy within the chain bonds. However, the thermal conductivity and ability to transfer that energy from one chain to another is very limited due to the irregularity of the chains. This combo leads to a low thermal diffusivity for plastics. Metals are much more simple and aligned with generally lower heat capacities, however the thermal conductivities can actually increase due to harmonic resonance (phonon) transport. This combo leads to a very high thermal diffusivity for pure metals.

What this means in the social domain

The book I’m compiling on social dynamics inspired by thermodynamics (here) has already established how values and temperature combine to cause the capacity to decrease with temperature (resources) and vMeme. My recent post on social transport mechanisms also shows that the number of diffusion mechanisms available decreases with temperature (resources) and vMeme. The question becomes the rate that these two parameters change relative to eachother with decreasing temperature. We don’t have equations of state that fix these trends yet. So we still need to use analogies.

A polymer chain molecule is analogous to a faculty member at a university — absolutely loaded with knowledge and information so as to yield a high capacity, perhaps so much so that it’s difficult for other molecules to relate and connect, in other words a low residual entropy/empathy and associated conductivity or transport value. This combination causes information and changes in boundary condition to diffuse incredibly slowly through the group.

A metal atom is analogous to a youth in a boarding or military school — relatively little knowledge (loaded with potential though!) so a fairly low capacity, however, is in a class among very homogeneous peers that know how to line up and speak on command, which are also united for a common cause (graduate). It’s like a crystal — very little room to move but when somebody says the head is mad, everybody knows what that means and fast. This leads to a higher residual entropy/empathy and associated conductivity or transport of info through phonon (acoustic vibration) resonance. This combination causes information and changes in boundary conditions to diffuse incredibly fast through the group, albeit over small ranges in temperature (resources).

Now let’s consider another class of material — high entropy metal alloys. This is a new class of materials emerging with very interesting properties for resilience. The closest material analogy in the above graphs would be stainless steel. You create these alloys by mixing many different atom types together, and creating crystal structures that maintain a balance between the constituent properties. The result? Although a decent heat capacity, a very low thermal conductivity that leads to a very low diffusivity close to plastics. The analogy that came to mind was the telephone game you play in elementary school where you start a message on one end of a line and watch how it changes when it comes out the other end. If you lined up a set of identical quadruplets and asked them to play the telephone game, you’d likely not have much of a game. Maximize the diversity of the group (analogous to a high entropy alloy) though and you’re bound for some fun. Which group, the quadruplets or the diverse group, are more likely to remain resilient in the face of an unknown stresser/challenge? My money’s on the diverse group — as long as the size of the group is not so large such that the slow information diffusion does not become the sensitive parameter.

How non-equilibrium transport leads to social structures

The Shape of the Internet (Commons)

“Whether it be the sweeping eagle in his flight, or the open apple-blossom, the toiling workhorse, the blithe swan, the branching oak, the winding stream at its base, the drifting clouds, over all the coursing sun, form ever follows function and this is the law.” — Louis Sullivan 1896

How Thermodynamic Laws Shape Structures

The challenge any engineer faces is the optimal form for a design. Why is a try shaped like a tree? And why does this look like a river delta, or a lung, or a neuron?

A river delta and a lung look similar for a reason.

In the 1990’s mechanical engineering professor Adrian Bejan developed the “Constructal Law of Thermodynamics“. Bejan concluded that entropy generation causes design structures to evolve in order to maximize flow. In the case of the river delta, and lung above these tree-like structures are all maximizing flow of mass, and thereby entropy generation. Diffusion constants for Mass, Momentum, Heat, Chemical potential, and Electricity (basically transport of any physical phenomena) are all coupled to the entropy generation term through Onsanger’s non-equilibrium thermodynamics. By constructing an entropy balance you can analyze the generation term to see that any flowing system will maximize the entropy generation term through readily calculable branching ratios. Bejan was able to construct computer algorithms that could predict the shapes of trees and other flow systems, ultimately concluding that this meant tree-like structures are optimal — which very well could be the case for flow systems based on mass.

Look at the universe though, and we realize very quickly that all structures in nature do not evolve into tree-like hierarchies. Planets, solar systems, galaxies, and social networks have very different structures as they do not rely primarily on continuous mass transport. Yet the thermodynamic laws are universal. So how can we use these laws to understand something like the shapes of social structures?

The structure of social networks

Social networks are built upon information exchange/diffusion mechanisms. All information diffusion mechanisms have varying degrees of strengths and weeknesses, which result in blind-spots or information that the network just misses. So it can be seen how these information exchange mechanisms, in-turn, shape and structure the social network, which creates a resource hierarchy for the network, which in turn shapes the network’s values.

Hear’s a graphic for how these information structures have evolved hand-in-hand with value Memes over time.

The evolution of information diffusion mechanisms goes hand-in-hand with v-Memes.

What you can see from the figure above is that each information storage mechanism works for a particular spiral value meme (which the corresponding network maps are from): 1. Survival, 2. Tribal, 3. Authoritarian, 4. Legalistic, 5. Performance, 6. Communitarian, 7. Systemic, and 8. Global/Holistic. Remember that all of the mechanisms/value levels matter and are useful in specific situations, yet evolved to serve differing needs through time. Each one of these information diffusion mechanisms likely has it’s own diffusivity property; similar to the mass, momentum, chemical, thermal, and electrical diffusivities in traditional thermodynamic space. It’s going to take some work to calculate these information diffusivity values for every instance or case.

From the structure of thermodynamics, and with the assertion that empathy is the social equivalence of entropy, we can see that social information structures can evolve from the laws of thermodynamics similar to mass based diffusion structures. As your social network evolves, you’ll get good at optimizing a particular value set, only to realize that the values your particular information structure has evolved for start missing another set of values that have become the sensitive parameter(s), and you’ll start structuring information to adapt to that new value set. This gets at the sophistication vs. evolution problem — you can become increasingly specialized and sophisticated in a particular value set for a particular problem but at some point you need to evolve to a new paradigm — it’s local vs. global optima. As the information diffuses, empathy generation occurs and increases as we seek to maximize the flow of information.

So the take-away — empathy, like entropy, is key to the transport and diffusion of information in a directly analogous way to the transport and diffusion of energy and mass. This transport and associated entropy/empathy generation creates the associated information and physical structures we see and use everyday. Every structure has it’s limits, and hence a resource and value hierarchy emerges to correspond to the structure. This is going to take awhile to fully unpack…

(This is a part of a larger book on social thermodynamics taking shape here.)



Social Efficiencies

Several friends have been asking me to comment on a recent article from Wired Magazine titled, “The Genius Neuroscientist Who May Hold the Secret to True AI.” The article is about Karl Friston’s “Free energy principle” which is essentially that the purpose of life is to minimize the free energy — defined qualitatively as the difference between your expectations and your sensory inputs. The secret, according to the article, is applying thermodynamic principles to intelligence. For any of you following these posts that comes as no surprise. The timing of this article is convenient as I’ve been waiting for awhile now to write what the social thermodynamic laws say about efficiencies. So here goes…

Thermodynamic “Free Energy”

There are many energies we utilize in thermodynamics: potential, kinetic, internal, Gibbs, Helmholtz, Landau, etc. Several of these energies are often described as “free” which may be one of the greater points of confusion in all of thermodynamics. One of the first lessons Richard Jacobsen taught me is a graduate student was how silly this “free” word really was. This is not “free” as in it doesn’t cost anything, “free” here denotes that the energy must be defined relative to a reference state that is “free” to set at an arbitrary value as there is no way of making an absolute measurement of the particular energy form in question. The variability of reference state is a common problem that plagues folks learning thermo for the first time — they’ll often mix property values from different sources not realizing that the reference points were changed. Although the reference points can change, one lesson I hammer home to my thermo students is that the change in a “free energy” property must be identical for the same process, regardless of reference state; i.e. it will always take the same amount of energy to boil a cup of pure water from liquid to vapor, regardless of the reference state. Since you have to use a reference state to calculate any of these energies anyways, why further obfuscate the problem with the use of “free”? No wonder everybody has a hard time with thermo.

Some Efficient Comparisons

What Friston is probably looking for is something akin to a Thermodynamic Efficiency. Thermodynamic Efficiencies were created as useful comparisons between energetic processes. A thermodynamic efficiency exists for each of the thermodynamic balances (a.k.a. thermodynamic laws):

  1. First Law Efficiency: What you want divided by what you paid to get it. Typically W_out/Q_in for a heat engine. Q_out/W_in for a refrigerator, etc.
  2. Second Law Efficiency: What you got divided by what you could’ve. Typically the W_actual/W_ideal for a heat engine. A second law efficiency can also be obtained by multiplying the first law efficiency by the Carnot efficiency ( the ideal or the limiting efficiency defined by the temperatures of the thermal reservoirs) for a process.

Friston’s challenge of resolving the difference between what we actually see and what we expect to see can be explained by the Second Law Efficiency transferred into the framework of Social Thermodynamics (the body of the book I’m writing on this is down the page here). The perfect or ideal case allows no entropy generation (remember I assert that entropy is empathy in social space). This requires that you already know everything about the process and no further empathy generation can occur. This is also the case in which you can maximize output, because you know everything. Reality though is imperfect. We never know everything and as such what we actually get is far from ideal. Hence empathy generation occurs and we learn a little bit more about the process each time.

First law efficiency is all about the energies — you put a certain amount in and you expect a certain amount back. You never get the same amount or more back, and some processes have a much lower return than others (Facebook anyone?). You don’t know why until you look at the second law efficiency and realize that the process was inherently limited to a low return due to entropy/empathy — you couldn’t have gotten much back. Herein lies an important take away.

Efficiency really is the key to Happiness

Happiness you elusive emotion… several recent self-help authors and researchers have taken on the challenge of happiness. Happiness can be thought of as a first law efficiency in social space — we pay a certain amount in and we want and expect a certain amount back. We often think about what we put into a process as what we have control over, but we really should also think about managing our expectations. In many processes the ideal/limiting efficiency is so low that our hopes are likely to be dashed unless we consider these limits. It may not be possible to realize the return we seek given the social mechanism we’re working through.

But what about luck? Can’t we be suddenly surprised by winning the lottery/raffle? Absolutely. It’s a statistical process. All of the players in the system have a probability distribution. Given enough trials though and the thermodynamic limits/laws hold. We can get lucky, but in the universe there’s no such thing as a “free energy” or a free lunch. Same goes for social space.

Education Unleashed

It’s called pedagogical scaffolding for a reason.

Structure versus unstructured — it’s the age old debate in education. It’s popped up recently in my department, my lab, and my family. While thinking about this in passing I had a major shift in how I view the problem. Hopefully it will change how you consider the problem too.

The problem is best exemplified for engineers by the traditional mathematics curriculum. Anybody that’s had a calculus class knows that the textbook is packed with equations that you, through repetition, are supposed to derive the solution for. Nobody has any clue where the starting equations come from, what they are connected to, or why they matter. The instructor assigns a few exercises that they find interesting, the solutions are kept by the instructor in a solutions manual, you do the exercises, submit your work, and get judged on accuracy. It’s been that way for over a century.

Times have changed.

When I was a student the tradition was that as soon as a textbook came out, the solution manual would be posted to some back-channel website and everyone would have the solution. This started as I was graduating college and grew to a terrible state where nobody had any idea how to do any work because they’d just record the solution from the manual. It’s just nature to take the path of least resistance.

Since I started at WSU I’ve worked hard to break this cycle by using software to come up with my own original homework assignments with motivation and inspiration coming directly from the research in my laboratory — which I happen to find fun. Only solution is in my head. However, this semester’s class surprised me. I would make up a homework assignment (literally about one of my old cars) and within 30 minutes of it being assigned someone from the class would post it to The irony is that even I had not made up a solution to the problem yet!

Thinking back on my math days as a student — I really didn’t understand differential equations until my graduate level heat transfer course from my advisor Greg Nellis at Wisconsin. In the class he’d give us a situation — a temperature or heat transfer boundary condition and ask for some kind of solution based on a typical problem that would come up in the field. We had to derive the sets of equations that governed the problem from scratch! The challenge was to use your judgement to include only the physics that the problem was sensitive to. Once you had the governing equations derived, we’d just plug it into software like Wolfram Alpha or Maple which would do the math to spit out the solution from those already known to humanity. The machines are good at this. Graph the solution to solve initial customer requirements. Voila! Sadly though, this heuristic approach to setting up problems is not typically emphasized by engineering curricula; with notable exceptions like Olin College.

What I’ve noticed recently is the difficulty that students have transitioning from the structured traditional algorithmic problem solution based paradigm to the less-structured heuristic problem formulation based paradigm. I’ve had several students who are absolutely brilliant with traditional algorithmic problems, only to become unhinged or unmoored when freed from the algorithmic structure. Change the situation and your students totally forget to apply the basic rules and processes you’ve taught them. Lord of the flies…

It reminds me of a problem from my childhood.

A dog “choker” chain — it looks menacing for a reason.

From age 6 through probably 13 I was involved with a 4-H dog obedience club. Through repetitive use of treats and a “choker” chain (carrots and sticks), you can teach a dog to walk along side you, sit when you stop, stay when commanded, and many other exercises in “obedience”. I’d be able to train a dog well, win awards, etc. It’s really not that hard it just takes time. I learned to exercise restraint with authority after choking my dog once in front of an audience — one of a handful of griefs I have in life. What I noticed though was that, despite being very obedient, when my dogs got out of the yard, or the leash came of, they’d lose their minds. Really, they’d take off, not listen to anything, pee all over everything, run out into traffic, etc.

Watch a dog trained in the woods without a leash and the situation is very different. They know to stick within earshot because they could get attacked by an animal, left, lost, etc. They can govern and bound the problems for themselves and improvise solutions when needed. That said, they probably don’t know when to sit when they should, may have problems staying on command, and probably wouldn’t do well in a city with a leash law.

What you can see from this comparison is that neither approach to education — algorithms or heuristics, structure versus unstructured, problem solution versus problem formulation — is optimal for all situations. The challenge is a healthy contrast that teaches people when and how to ‘shift gears’ between these paradigms based on the environment and situation.

If we rebalanced curricula to promote the foundational algorithmic solutions in morning classes as predicated by real industry sponsored design problems in afternoon classes, a process known as pedagogical scaffolding, we may get to where we want to be. Websites like and others would become completely silly in the eyes of the students relative to professional faculty backed by industry. They’d be well on the path to proficiency. See this post from 3 years ago for more info: 

And, unlike the old adage, I know first hand it’s totally possible to teach an old dog new tricks. You just have to begin.

“It’s like teaching engineers how to negotiate.”

Negotiating has never felt natural for me. It goes with the territory of being an engineer. Everything we do is about working more efficiently, taking only what we need, delivering something that works consistently within the physical bounds allowed by nature, and building our reputation based on the merit of the products we produce. The engineer’s creed reinforces this service-leadership mentality. That’s all fine and great until the engineer has to negotiate terms of a salary agreement, loan, statement of work, or other legally binding contract. There’s an old saying when trying to do something that’s frustratingly difficult, “It’s like teaching engineers how to negotiate.” So regardless of whether it comes naturally or not, negotiations are key to sustaining lifelong performance. Yet I don’t know of an engineering curriculum that provides training in this area.

For all of you engineers out there getting ready to negotiate a job offer — here’s a big secret — companies WANT to hire VERY GOOD negotiators! Of course you want the good negotiators on your team and not the other! The better you are at negotiating your job offer the more they’ll want to hire you! This, in engineer speak, is called a positive feedback loop. Positive feedback loops often precede something breaking. So it is critical to know and understand the limits on the negotiation.

Here’s a few tips:

Tip #1 —  Ask lots of questions, like with any engineering system. Stories are an excellent way to get info. Make every effort to understand the company’s philosophical approach to the hire. Why have they established the pay range and targets they are looking for? What’s the average, plus min/max standard deviations pay/timeoff/hours/resources for people in similar positions over the last few years? What ancillary benefits have new hires received? Has anybody broken the bounds? What’s the best hiring negotiation story they have? When they ask why you want to know this information, it’s simply because you want to be a very good fit and return maximum value back to the company for the long haul. In short, turn over as many of the stones as you can. You might find many of them are unnecessary or un-informed.

Example 1: One of my students fresh out of ME 406 was negotiating his employment with a major aerospace company. One of the forms passed to him in the interview to sign was the Intellectual Property (IP) form where you give away the rights to all of your inventions to the company while employed by the company, even if they were developed at home. He simply said that he couldn’t do that as he’s a clever guy and comes up with inventions totally unrelated to company work all of the time. He was shocked by how quickly an alternate form was produced from under the table, along with a big smile from the hiring manager. Turns out hiring managers are on the clock and assessed on their performance too.

Example 2: When I was negotiating the terms of my home loan I was given a 30+ page legal document and only four hours to read it. I was busy and didn’t have time. So when it came down to signing I simply went to the costs and expenses pages and asked what service each nebulous titled expense covered. When they answers started becoming a little contrived, I simply said I wasn’t interested in paying it as I couldn’t see how that service was being provided. A $600 expense was waived that I used to buy my first couch.

Tip #2 — “Ask for everything. Take what you are given.” Now that you have as much information about the company and wiggle room on the position as possible, ask for everything you can get. But don’t be a pig about it. Remember that you genuinely want to better the company going forward. You need to empathize with their needs and wants. Not just now as rational empathy arguments would imply, but long term in a tactical/conscious empathy way. This is a tactic from Chris Voss’ excellent book, “Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as if your Life Depended on it.” While it may not be possible for the hiring manager to budge on traditional easily quantifiable metrics like pay and time off, you may be able to get some real ancillary benefits. Gym membership? Free childcare? Parking space? Travel? Sabbatical? Company computer/workspace? Hiring bonus? Maternity leave? Medical/dental? Rotation time to see the different facets of the company and decide who you work best with? Company credit line? Be systematic with a checklist; at least they’ll know they’re getting a systematic engineer. Plan these strategically based on rational arguments. Know that once they say yes to something that you can go on a run and build momentum, until they say no that is.

Example 3: One of my students got a job with an aerospace company in the region. On day 1 he was given a company credit card with a $30k limit. “I wish I would’ve known that the limit was negotiable.”

Example 4: I was trying to buy a custom mattress for my home once. After using a competitor’s sale to bring the price down, we were close to a deal. Salesman asked, “Are we where we need to be?” So I asked them to throw in a mattress topper. I got a big smile and a proud handshake from the salesmen. Negotiations don’t always end well. But the old folks tend to like to see young folks who don’t lose their shirts in deals.

Tip #3 — Know yourself and what you’re worth. If you have a unique set of skills (like cryogenics + hydrogen) — then the company is unlikely to get it anywhere else. If they need your skills, and push comes to shove, be prepared to walk away in as nice a way as possible. Remember that hiring managers are numbers and metrics based people who don’t want to waste time — just like you. They are the ones trying to hire you here.

Example 5: I was negotiating a consulting contract and was struggling to find standards for consulting engineer pay. I found a standard pay rate for consulting engineers based on experience I found online. It helped to refute the company’s argument that some guy from Stanford was charging a lot less.

Tip #4 — Remember that you’re about to be on the same team, so be as polite, objective, and efficient as possible. And if it doesn’t go well, you may end up on the same team sometime in the future. It really is a small world.

So Learn, Ask, Know, and Empathize — negotiating aaknew job is like jumping in a LAKE. Empathizing, improvising, and working with someone on a negotiation like this can be a lot of fun. But it takes a little to get us engineers out of our shells to do it. The examples above are literally all I have. But I know enough to know that I’ll keep trying. Because when negotiations work well, everybody’s happy.

Start your cryogenics career with a Boom!

We are literally surrounded by the cold cryogenic vacuum of space. And it’s only 62 miles (100 km) away! That should be incredibly unsettling.


People often ask both why and how I ended up focusing my career on a niche area like cryogenic hydrogen. To be honest, I had no idea that cryogenics was even a field of research, like the vast majority of engineering and physics students graduating from our universities. I started down this path by accident when my Master’s Thesis Advisors at the University of Idaho, Dr. Richard Jacobsen and Dr. Steve Penoncello, gave me the option in the Fall of 2005 to either write new equations of state for hydrogen or natural gas distribution. I chose hydrogen, because of rockets, like most young engineers would’ve. As you’re about to find out, I’m really glad I did — and just so you know, there’s plenty of room in this field for you too if you’re interested.

As I dove into researching hydrogen properties a new word kept coming up, “cryogenics”. Initial thoughts of frozen brains and dead bodies came to mind. Reality though is that cryogenics is the study of anything below 130 K in temperature, which includes most of space. Cryogenics is so incredible because it is a very simple and pure environment to observe the laws of the universe. If you’re interested in thermodynamics, heat transfer, and physics like me, cryogenics could be the field for you.

Early on during my Master’s thesis, I remember going into a meeting with Jacobsen and Penoncello. I had seen the words ‘orthohydrogen’ and ‘parahydrogen’ coming up over and over again and asked them what they were and how we were going to predict their ideal-gas properties. When Jacobsen, the US expert in equations of state, turned to Penoncello and said, “well we’ll have to call somebody about that.”

Penoncello said, “Well who?” ‘

Jacobsen said, “I don’t know, it’s a pretty small field.”

From that point forward I knew that I had an opportunity to became the expert on ortho- and parahydrogen; and given how much hydrogen was used by NASA and others, I’d have value. The behavior of hydrogen at cryogenic temperatures is amazing and I was hooked. That led to writing new property models for hydrogen. It was a big way to start a research career — write the equations that every other engineer or scientist working in the area would use.

It really wasn’t until the fall of 2007 that I had a chance to really get my hands on cryogenics. Dr. John Pfotenhauer and Dr. Greg Nellis had the only cryogenic hydrogen (really deuterium) project in the US. I accepted a research position, site unseen, thanks to my amazing friend Dr. Dave Rowe, who was touring Wisconsin and told me about the project. Pfotenhauer really taught me the fun of experimental cryogenics. Nellis taught me how to perform with cryogenic heat transfer and thermodynamics analysis. It was a perfect pairing.

While at Wisconsin I discovered the rich history of the Cryogenics field. Roger W. Boom originally started the cryogenics and applied superconductivity laboratory there in 1968. Although I never got to meet Dr. Boom as he was suffering Alzheimer’s and had moved away, I got to know Dr. Boom through the legacy of his accomplishments; primarily his great passion for developing students to enter into this field. He was so passionate about this legacy that he and his students created the Dr. Roger W. Boom Award, managed by the Cryogenic Society of America, for individuals under the age of 40 with promise to contribute to the fields of cryogenics and superconductivity. I got to meet Dr. Boom’s great niece and nephew at the Applied Superconductivity Conference recently. They described him as a gregarious and warm person who was always concerned with making sure everyone felt welcomed and involved with the community, and welcomed the successes of those around him. Although the Applied Superconductivity Laboratory left to become the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory at Florida State University, the Wisconsin Cryogenics lab remains the largest in academia in the US.

Dr. Boom passed away earlier this year. What he missed was the beginning of a cryogenic renaissance of sorts. Never in my lifetime has there been as much interest in space. With companies like Blue Origin, SpaceX, United Launch Alliance, and the new NASA Space Launch System (SLS) all offering commercial spaceflight capabilities, there’s never been more of a need or a better time for young engineers to develop cryogenic skills.

Most of these engineers with dreams of rockets don’t realize that those technologies have to perform missions almost entirely in the cold cryogenic vacuum of space. Most curricula don’t even define cryogenics or vacuum technologies. There’s a saying that’s often used, “Space is hard.” It’s because cryogenics and vacuum engineering is hard; actual rocket science.

Cryogenics is so hard that if you don’t have exceptional mentors and student engineers, you simply can’t do it. It’s shocking to realize how few labs in academia are working in this area and only producing a handful of graduates each year. That’s a big problem given the pressing need. So for this renewed interest to take hold it’s time for us in the cryogenics community to lean-in and rekindle Dr. Boom’s legacy. I’ve been very fortunate to have some of the best mentors and students imaginable. But it’s going to take many more following in the spirit of Dr. Boom’s legacy if we want to be serious as a nation about space.

The power of story

The room was packed with the who’s-who — and somehow I’m in the panel on stage. The mic was passed to me. Not knowing how to begin, I just told my story. Not far along I started receiving smiles, nods, and laughter from the audience. From that point on I knew I had an audience that could relate to my story.

(Here’s a secret for those of you that don’t know me — I’ve never been great at telling stories.)

It’s amazing how effective a story is at communicating — despite the fact that everyone’s story is different. There is something inherent about a personal story we’re hard-wired to accept. Which is why it’s shocking to me how often in academic circles we forget this powerful tool.

One of the lab members asks — “When we were talking about fellowships yesterday you used the term ‘Psychological Armwrestling’ within the context of essay drafting. What is Psychological Armwrestling? You used it with a negative connotation. Is it ever appropriate to Psychologically Armwrestle someone?”

I made ‘Psychological Armwrestling’ up likely from my experience with Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” I would define it as a deliberate and rational attempt to psychologically corner or box someone into accepting a point of view or opinion via explicit presentation of rational arguments. On the social thermodynamics empathy pyramid Psychological Armwrestling works primarily with rational empathy. The reality is though that you can’t force someone to believe anything within the legal norms of our society. As Dale Carnegie put it, “You can’t win an argument.” And unless someone is within your sphere of influence — work or social group of some kind — the more you try to force a notion onto someone the more they are likely to resist. The reason and source of this resistance is the real interesting part.

If I put on my professor hat and was placed in front of a room of students to talk about a topic I’m the expert in, say thermodynamics or cryogenic hydrogen — I could get away with all of the psychological armwrestling I wanted to as long as I remained rational and didn’t violate one of your core values and beliefs — which isn’t too challenging because you likely haven’t constructed much core knowledge on those topics. I’m the expert in a position of power and authority to do the armwrestling and psychological boundary construction — it’s appropriate, expected, efficient, and one of the reasons you are paying to be here. Let’s get busy!

Now go back to your essay proposing why you should receive a fellowship. Are you in any kind of position of credible authority to psychologically armwrestle the reviewer? Who is the reviewer? Likely a professional at NASA, the NSF, or some other organization with many years of experience in the field you are looking to enter. Imagine this as the case of a student in a big classroom trying to wrestle control and authority over a class from the faculty member. How’s that going to work? You often create a situation where the person in power or control has to legitimize their authority role, and years worth of experience, by what is sadly culturally referred to as “putting you in your place.” — Not the most efficient or effective way of winning a fellowship, friends, or influencing people. Yet some psychological armwrestling is required to establish your credibility and capability — so what’s the trick?

Go one level up the empathy pyramid to Cognitive (a.k.a. tactical) Empathy — setting the stage, or hook, for an eventual outcome in such a subtle and fun way that people don’t even realize what’s happening. Some example opening ‘hook’ sentences developed by our group over the years:

“In my fifth grade science class I went to Mars.” — the start to an essay describing an interest in spaceflight.

“I struck a match and held it to the specimen.” — the start to an essay on sustainable fuel.

“As we drifted into the current, the water was suddenly so cold, so fast, that I screamed and fell into the boat.” — the start to an essay on thermal waste heat scavenging from hydro-electric dams.

“When I was eight years old, my older brother told me that aliens delivered me as an egg in the field next to my parents house.” — the start to a personal statement on spaceflight.

“I threw the switch, and to my amazement, the indicator jumped three times farther than expected.” — the start to any essay presenting a novel new experimental finding.

These opening hook sentences tend to win fellowships for a couple of reasons:

  1. Unexpected/unconventional — the vast majority of essays I’ve read tend to start with “I’ve always wanted to…”
  2. Original — many steal some other quote or slogan “Gradatim Ferociter” — anybody can do this.
  3. Disarming — who’s going to argue with your story? No reviewer is going to say, “nope they’re not telling it right.”
  4. Inviting — sets the stage for a relevant and interesting story/journey/adventure. Says to the reviewer — this story will be worth your time.

This approach borrows many cues from Andrew Stanton’s TED talk, “The clues to a great story“.

Once you’ve set the stage and started the journey through the story in a way that’s at all relate-able, you’ve hooked the reviewer/audience. They’ll grant you a few forays into rational psychological armwrestling, provided the relevance, credibility, and efficiency of your story is preserved — and you need some rationality in a technical discipline. You also need some emotion, passion, and drive. You also need some simple understanding of the reviewer’s needs. The more levels of the empathy pyramid you naturally engage, the more likely that reviewer, whom you’ve likely never met before, will feel like they understand you, want to hear more, and help you.

In the end, it really is amazing that despite how different all of our stories are, stories are incredibly instrumental at helping us find ways to relate, connect, and plan ahead — perhaps because our own stories are always changing. Regardless, when it’s time to get your communications to really work, unleash the power of story.

(Note that this post was originally and totally psychological armwrestling. The way the question was presented, and the fact that I’ve written the majority of a book on a topic related to this, made it seem appropriate. It’s the default for us academics. I had to go back and write the fun opener for a general audience just to avoid hypocrisy.)

The magic of magnetizing air

HYPER lab members Jordan Raymond, Eli Shoemake, Greg Wallace, and Carl Bunge use a magnet to pull around liquid air droplets in TFRB.

One of the HYPER lab’s favorite demonstrations for visitors is magnetizing air — yes, the stuff you’re breathing can be magnetized. We play around before these demos and come up with amazing ideas, and we’ve got patent-pending technology to prove it.

Here’s what you’ll need to do this:

  1. Support a small metal container over a surface. In the picture above we’re using a thin-walled stainless steel beaker and a test-tube stand.
  2. Fill the metal container with liquid nitrogen (make sure you’re following all necessary safety precautions before handling liquid nitrogen).
  3. Because the normal boiling point temperature of liquid nitrogen (~77 K) is less than the normal boiling point temperature of air (~80 K), liquid air will begin to condense on the outside of the container.
  4. Use a small pyrex dish to catch the liquid air droplets as the drop off of the metal container.
  5. Use a neodymium or other strong magnet below the pyrex dish to pull around the liquid air droplets.

Here’s a video:

Here’s an explanation of why this happens:

Liquid oxygen has two unpaired electrons in it’s outer 2p electron orbits. These vacancies give the O2 molecule a net spin, the spin in turn is the movement of electrons, which will interact with a magnetic field. It’s called paramagnetism — unusually magnetic — and only occurs when oxygen is dense, and slow enough, to be significantly influenced by the magnet.

What it does:

For most kids, this is a literal magic trick enabled by science. “WOW!” is all too common. For engineers working in cryogenics, playing like this causes a “what if we put magnets on _____?”!!” moment that can lead to innovation.

Happy magnetizing!

Welcome Cougs to becoming professionals

Yesterday I stood in the center of the Round in the Spark as one of four faculty to address 270 of our incoming freshman engineers.

I’ve thought about this moment for years — going way back to my time as an undergrad. What would I tell a freshman on their first day as an engineer? What was I told on my first day?

Flashback – briefly – my first day on campus as an undergrad was the start of football camp. The first night of which drunken seniors rounded up the freshman and shaved all of our heads — some better than others. — I’ve never been one to blindly follow traditions.

So, in need of a story, I asked the HYPER lab members “Your first meeting with the dean and your peers as a freshman, what do you wish someone would’ve said?”

“If you came to the university, and we did not change you, you did not get your money’s worth.”

“There’s a limit on credits for a reason.”

“You should never build your life around the resume and that if you do work meaningful to you the resume will come.”

“There seemed to be this collective understanding that everyone was there to work and get things done.”

“The opportunities don’t just end at the University level. Collaborating and putting yourself out there in all sectors is the best way to see the full breadth of the field.”

“College (unlike our valued trade or conservatory colleagues) can be about discovering a whole life.”

“Slow down.”

“It’s going to be the hardest you’ve worked in your life.”

Dean Rezac primed the four of us faculty immediately before that we were to describe the basics of our specific School. And with all of these thoughts swirling in my head, the mic was handed to me and I had my two minutes. What was said is between me and those freshman. But I had to be Professional — honest, credible, and reliably deliver.

Engineering is one of the original three “professional” disciplines with lawyers and doctors. Professionalism can be thought of as the experienced exercise of judgement and discretion towards the practice and promotion of your chosen discipline. What I’ve learned over the years is that despite all of your efforts to learn the standards, prepare for the worst, and practice proficiency with your craft, there will be times when the standards don’t apply, the worst anyone envisioned is not the worst, and you could not have practiced or prepared.

There are many examples of this form of professionalism from engineering, but as par for the field, are often not captured in real time or in public. An analogous case of professionalism, which I’m presenting here due to her death yesterday, is Aretha Franklin’s stand in for Luciano Pavaratti’s famous aria “Nessun Dorma,” in which she agreed to do the piece with only 20 minutes notice, no rehearsal, and no ability to speak Italian.

Respect is earned.

Make no mistake, we faculty will do our best through the standard coursework, mentoring, and research experiences; but ultimately we cannot force you, nor can you pay, to become a professional. We cannot teach you to follow your passions and interests. We cannot assign you the extra effort outside the lines. We cannot prepare you for everything you need to be prepared for. And when the time for you comes, we cannot be the professional that the world needs you to be.

This is the start of a lifelong journey. Welcome Cougs to becoming professionals.

You don’t know Jack.

Many seem to think my student mentoring style is non-traditional. At least the students tell me it’s different from other faculty. It’s because you don’t know Jack. My dad Jack. Mentor numero uno. My original mentor. Get to know Jack and you’ll start to understand.

Somehow, and I still don’t have this figured out, my dad has reliably produced outstanding teachers and mentors in his wake. His little sister Laurie spent her career as a 5th grade teacher in one of Lewiston’s tougher areas. His little brother Tom is the head science teacher at Lewiston High School. Tom and I share the same space in my dad’s brain as he’s interchanged our names my entire life. I knew before coming to college that teaching and coaching was a skill that somehow came naturally to me. As best as I can tell, my dad’s the common link in this. Much like him, I realized early on that my role in life was mentoring and coaching people to achieve heights and accomplishments that I never would.

Jack has always been a brilliant mechanic. Early in life one of his mentors gave him a 1956 civilian CJ5 Jeep that was bright red/orange. He spent considerable hours working and maintaining this Jeep. It’s a likely reason he went to Lewis-Clark State College and became an auto parts salesman and technician for General Motors. When I was a kid, I’d sit outside the garage and build Lego cars while my dad assembled a 1955 Chevrolet 2-door Sedan from boxes of parts — that eventually became that same bright red/orange color. I’d get to help turn a wrench from time to time, or swap a starter for instance, or help him bench press a transmission into place… One evening, my dad decided the small block 350 engine in our Chevrolet Blazer was not running quite right, he had another engine sitting on a block in the garage. He swapped the engines entirely and we drove 2 hours to go hunting at 4 am that morning.

No surprise, when it came time for me to learn to drive. My dad bought me a truck — a 1968 Chevy long-box step side — that didn’t work. “It’s up to you to make it run,” he said. And it was. He’d help me if I got stuck. But it was mine to do as I wanted. Onetime in college I the oil filter got stuck and our oil filter wrench was being borrowed. He improvised a strap wrench from an old seat belt. By that time I’d had statics and machine design and argued that the wrench would not torque the filter. He laughed at me and said to try it anyways and said, “I’ve never done this before.” It worked. Somehow the truck ended up that same bright red/orange color, although now faded. We still have it. It’s not a stretch to say that rainbows appear and everyone smiles when they see it.Jack is never one to delegate understanding, especially when it comes to working with machines. “Why would I pay someone to fix something that I can figure out for myself?” This was a value we applied to designing and fixing up most things around our house growing up. By the time I was ready to go to college, I had enough experiences trying to fix my own designs and those of others that I knew mechanical engineering was a good fit. Midway through college I realized that being a professor merged the natural skills with coaching and this love for design.

Part way through my time in high school, my dad became a setup technician at Blount, then ATK, and now Vista Outdoors, the largest bullet manufacturing plant in North America. In this role he maintained the smooth operation of bullet presses — as well as working directly with engineers. He’d come home extremely frustrated often with statements along the lines of, “An engineer that’s never worked on my machines came out of his office and told me I needed to do something that will never work. It’s because they don’t know the machines or what I have to do to fix them.” I’ve learned through the years that there are a certain class of people that accurately from across the room, just by feeling the change in vibration of the floor or a small change in acoustics imperceptible to most, know that a machine will have a specific issue within the next 5 minutes. The classic challenge of an engineer is trying to convince that person that they can help them. No surprise, my dad was often working with engineering teams to help them with new tough equipment changes.

But my Dad’s real strength is not what he could do, but it was what he didn’t do. I was reminiscing with a friend the other day about the dangerous close calls of our youth — I struggled to think up examples when we were in harms way. Given all of the whitewater rafting, hiking, camping, and traveling we did my dad has an incredible safety record. What’s more, he didn’t take the responsibility of my decisions and actions away from me. “I’m not going to tell you what to do, but you need to think this through, because if X happens then Y will happen.” This is a skill that I work so hard to apply to my graduate students. They want me to free them of the burden of their decision responsibilities, not knowing how this will set them back later in life. It’s their time to start making decisions and leading their own lives. The university always wants to put my name behind grants that students pitch to win — it’s their project, they are the players. I’m merely helping to facilitate.

My Dad was confident in himself to let me lead, early in life. He’d done the hard work early to be sure I was ready to lead. An example was getting me in the gym with his friends at 5 am during the summers as early as 5th grade — somehow knowing I’d have a chance at college through football. When it worked out that I became a star in high school football — it was my own success to celebrate. My parents never waited around after games to congratulate me or coach or critique — it was my time, my success. They had no problem hearing stories from me about the dance, the party, or whatever they wanted. Because I trusted them to let me be.

When I defended my Master’s Thesis that ended up winning the top Master’s Thesis Award in Western North America across all disciplines, my mom and dad were in the room. My dad’s shoes were covered with grass clippings from mowing the lawn right before driving up. Which says it all — the pomp and circumstance — the prestige — none of it matters compared to doing things. When it was done my advisor, Richard T Jacobsen, who had been the Dean at Idaho for nearly a decade shook my dad’s hand and congratulated him for doing a heck of a job with me. I remember my dad saying, “he did it all himself.”

Thanks Dad!


Washington State University