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

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!


Despite the statistical ‘evidence’

In high-school I was too light (250 pounds), too week (280 pound bench), too slow (5.5 s 40 yard time) to be a ‘good’ offensive line football player — but somehow managed to lead a team to the 5A state title game, set school rushing records, and land a D1 college scholarship to play for Tom Cable, an offensive-line guru.

In college my SAT scores were too low (1240/1600), GPA too low (3.26/4), GRE scores too low (720/800 quantitative), qualifier scores too low, to be a ‘good’ researcher in mechanical engineering — but somehow managed to win the Outstanding Senior Award in ME at Idaho and follow it up with the top Masters Thesis across all disciplines in Western North America for 2008.

In my career as a Professor my publication count is too low, my H-index too low (8), my funding expenditures too low, to be a ‘good’ faculty member in mechanical engineering — one of my big hit ideas looked bad in preliminary calculations, in multiple ways, everyone lost confidence until the experiments started showing otherwise.

Statistics don’t lie — I really had/have those metrics.

The problem almost always is not in the statistics/metrics themselves but is in what we decide the statistics/metrics mean. In high-school I focused on conditioning to finish the end of games, not on one-time lifts. In college I focused on building sustaining communities and clubs (led the engineering hall to 3 consecutive hall of the year awards) and didn’t study for placement exams, which I thought were pointless. In my current job I focus on training exceptional students to go into leading jobs in cryogenics and aerospace, everything else is secondary.

Over the years I’ve thought a lot about what this means:

  1. Work hard, every day, on something that motivates your principles, values, and convictions — you’ll eventually have value to realize.
  2. Don’t pay attention to the secondary critics and statistics — as long as the ones that matter are still engaged.
  3. Focus on the force multipliers that matter in the end — which are much harder to measure, quantify, and game.

Now my challenge, and curse, is seeing through the wonderful statistics of all the students to not miss another student like me.

Thanks to everyone that has believed and had confidence in me, despite the statistical ‘evidence’.

(Somewhere J. Edwards Deming is rolling in his grave — “Trust in God, everyone else must bring data.” He should’ve said “everything” instead of “everyone” — it’s much easier to quantify limits on physical objects to manufacture than human beings.”)

Never _____ what a student should

1. Never teach what a student should — stop holding office hours, hold group study instead; stop pontificating, assign them a forum post/essay instead; stop answering, start questioning.

2. Never present what a student should — stop lead authoring, they need to learn to write; stop presenting at conferences, they need to learn to talk; stop pitching to businesses, they need to reel ’em in.

3. Never design what a student should — stop estimating, they need to learn the “back of the envelope”; stop questioning clients, they need to know when to speak up; stop calling suppliers, they need to know who to talk to.

Quit getting in the way.

I will not _________ so that you can.

Credit to Dan Bukvich who famously quipped, “I will not emote so that you can.”


Authority, feedback loops, and the setback

One of the characteristics of the HYPER lab community and alumni is authority and ownership over projects. I work very hard to fulfill the role of coach, a.k.a. service leadership, and to not take ownership of experiments away from the people actually doing the work. This is a fine balance and requires lab wide standards to ensure safety and performance. This scaffolding is a key reason great students keep coming to the lab — freedom to own a difficult project with the necessary coaching and resources to succeed. This is very different from authoritarian micro-managing environments typical of business and academia in the US. Hence, the lab community has to continually practice to prepare our members to handle situations when dealing with authority.

Here are two common situations and how to handle them:

“We had a setback”

Having to tell your boss that something went wrong is always tough, and it happens to everyone that is working on the hard problems we need solved. How you handle this though is the difference between becoming the golden child and the scapegoat (all narcissistic authoritarians have both a scapegoat and golden child). It’s critical to NEVER use the default response of asking your boss “what do you want me to do next?”. This is tempting as it frees you from the responsibility of making a decision, but your boss probably already has enough of this.

Always propose the three best options weighted based on your justified preference. “We had a setback with the ____. I see three ways of handling this: 1…, 2…., 3……, I’m leaning towards ____ because _____.” Then wait for your boss to weigh in. This allows your authoritarian boss to still feel like the boss and being involved in your work WITHOUT assuming the responsibility of doing your work. Your boss is not paying you engineering salary for them to tell you what to do. In the worst case scenario, and all three of your solutions are failures, what will your boss have to do? Tell you what to do next. Don’t start this conversation by failing yourself. Do your best to impress and at the very least set the stage for good coaching and feedback.

“Feedback Received”

Another common problem is how you receive coaching/feedback/direction from a boss. Anybody can say “thanks for the feedback” as it is easy, however this response does not return the favor of your boss’ valuable time spent working on you. Even worse, simply saying, “your feedback made a big difference” could come across as disingenuous. If your boss is worried about continuous improvement and systemic thinking, then they hopefully provide feedback via Strengths, Improvements, and Insights (SIIs). Reciprocating this is important. Dr. Chuck realized that it helps to go in reverse order to communicate that the feedback was correctly received.

For example, Boss says, “Your report has an excellent data analysis for the experiment (strength). However, the results section did not emphasize the sensitivity of the key variable (Improvement). If you follow this ASTM standard on sensitivity analysis you will naturally add a nice summary and important reference (Insight).” A great response to this would be, “Thanks! I was not aware of this ASTM standard (Insight). I had difficulties quantify the key variable sensitivity (Improvement). With the sensitivity issue solved the report should be complete and ready for submission later today (strength).”

Authority versus Service Leadership

A hallmark of the “Toyota Way” of continuous improvement is the ability of a boss to go down and work the assembly line with other workers. This empathic place-taking is key to actually understanding the problems faced by the community as we endeavor to continuously improve performance, and it’s only possible with a highly scaffolded and error-proofed work-flow. Lean has been slow to permeate in the US for a reason — our culture is obsessed with the idea of the cowboy-champion. Nearly everything about our culture/system is geared toward building these individuals, often at the expense of a sustaining community of empowered individuals. Remember our society’s view of what a “leader” is may not be what best helps your team to succeed. It’s one of the reasons I followed the Boeing lead and renamed the role of “leader” to that of liaison. Authority is important, but don’t fool yourself — sustaining communities are built upon independent mastery of the standards and rules of an organization. And to build that community, it takes a community.

Common Cryogenic Copper Confusions

I made these mistakes when I was learning. Just about every student in my lab has made them too. It’s all too common to have cryogenic copper confusion. It ends here.

The root of the confusion lies in the heat transfer promised land, as illustrated by the below chart of thermal conductivity of copper at cryogenic temperatures. An even better comparison than this chart is in Jack Ekin’s FANTASTIC book that is absolutely required reading for my lab: “Experimental Techniques for Low Temperature Measurement” Jack is so wonderful he’s even posted the figures openly available for people to access on-line and his thermal conductivity chart is here:

Historical NBS measurements of copper thermal conductivity.

Yes you see that right. The thermal conductivity of copper varies two orders of magnitude at cryogenic temperatures. If you look at the figure in the link above from Jack Ekin’s book, RRR=2000 copper has a thermal conductivity at 10 K on par with the highest of diamond and sapphire. This thermal conductivity is a full 6!! orders of magnitude higher than some plastics. To put that into reference if you had a 10 K temperature gradient across a plastic bus bar, you’d have a 0.00001 K gradient with RRR=2000 copper. — The heat transfer promised land — and, like so many promised lands, has led many young cryogenicists to the school of hard knocks.

C110, C101, C102, ETP, OFHC, RRR???

All copper is not the same. If you go to common material suppliers your choices are typically C110, a.k.a. electrolytic tough pitch (ETP), or C101, a.k.a. oxygen free high-purity copper (OFHC). Looking  back on the graph, both ETP and OFHC are listed next to a RRR of 50, and a full two orders of magnitude lower than RRR=2000 copper. Most copper scrap or tubing that’s sat around should probably be assumed RRR=25 or less. RRR stands for residual resistance ratio and is measured via the ratio of electrical resistance at 295 K versus immersed in liquid helium at 4 K. Electrical resistance depends primarily on purity and granularity of the sample. So if you by OFHC and carefully anneal it many times, you too can realize a RRR of 2000. But beware.

Once you remove all impurities and anneal copper to a RRR=2000, you’ve removed everything that made it strong. You’ve basically got a bar of soft material that behaves similar to lead or pure silver that you could scratch with your fingernail. This very high purity state is very attractive to impurities. People who seriously need high conductivity copper end up having to keep it sealed to prevent impurities via multiple platings or plastic wrap to prevent oxidation in air, because once it is in air, it’s no longer oxygen free high-purity. Moreover, this very soft material is hardly usuable for traditional metal applications because it has low strength. Further, it’s difficult to machine because it galls and grabs tooling. One of my students, who shall remain nameless for this post, decided to proceed with a C101 copper round because the machine shop had it and he was in a hurry. His piece ended up sitting for days immersed in an alum solution while he tried to dissolve away the tap he broke in it.

Calculating Thermal Diffusion

What’s potentially even more common than breaking tooling with copper is designing a part without doing simple heat transfer calculations to justify the design decisions. Problems are usually more time limited with cryogenics than temperature limited, which adds an additional dimension beyond traditional thermal conductivity. My co-advisor Greg Nellis and Sandy Klein’s classic text “Heat Transfer” is also required lab reading. Greg presents a handy equation for estimating the thermal diffusion time constant:

tau = L^2/(4*alpha)

where tau is the approximate time it takes for a thermal wave to propogate through a material of length L and thermal diffusivity alpha. Thermal diffusivity is the ratio of thermal conductivity to density times heat capacity. Jack Ekin’s book has a great graph on thermal diffusivity here: With this you can quickly gauge whether, from a time perspective, it makes sense to have a higher purity material in your system. That 6 order of magnitude difference between copper and plastic changes a 10 minute equilibration time to a 19 year(!!) equilibration time.

Clever Geometry Hacks

One more trick to convince yourself that you don’t need high purity copper is geometry. A common problem in cryogenics is the routine calibration of temperature sensors over a large range of operation (3-120 K). Heat transfer occurs, by definition, through a temperature gradient. So one way to minimize temperature gradients, rather than going to a high conductivity material, is to reduce the heat transfer via geometry. By positioning temperature sensors in a “thermal dead-end” you minimize heat flow through the region and create a very uniform or equilibrium sector for sensor calibration. Again, Ekin’s wisdom shines through with this concept:

The ultimate geometry hack is to remove the system from your cryostat entirely. An old saying in racing and aerospace, “any part left off the plane weighs nothing and never breaks.” You could extend this to include that it takes no design or machining time or expense either. The same goes for cryogenics.

In summary

You need to read Jack Ekin’s book and Greg Nellis’ text if you want to get good at cryogenics. The old saying goes, “A weeks worth of time in the library saves a year’s worth of time in the lab.” The same probably applies to simple design calculations and time spent on prototyping: do the simple calculation first to see what actually matters, then make your design decisions and keep them simple. Yes you could 3D print something complex these days and do an FEA analysis of heat transfer that looks pretty. But in the end, you’ll probably realize that the wonderful promised lands you had in mind may not be what you’re really looking for or needed.

Blind-spots and how to discover

‘Cause we’ve all got ’em and no intelligence is universal.


We had an accident in the Leachman family household. A routine effort to clean the kitchen oven ended up stripping the veneer off the poor cabinets below. Have no fear, I’m a woodworker.

Our house is a true relic. Original custom mid-century modern built in 1956 with gorgeous tongue-and-groove ceilings and Polynesian Mahogany paneling throughout. I’m 100% sure it’s Polynesian Mahogany because it’s specified in the original blue prints we have framed on the wall.

So a jaunt to the hardware store produced some Polynesian Mahogany boards which I had shaped, bonded, and finished after a day. I proudly installed the doors and stepped back to look at my wife for the “I fixed it” moment.

Only to realize the cabinets in our kitchen are not Polynesian Mahogany, but stained Maple instead. You may have even missed this difference in the photo.

The Polynesian Mahogany cabinet doors were left as a persistent reminder of what I like to call “blind-spots”: our flawed assumptions about the simplicity of our complex world.

Let’s pause for a moment. Look out straight ahead of you. Now within your field of view, notice something that you’ve never noticed before.

It’s not too hard to find blind spots. When you think about the torrent of information our senses unleash on our brains, it’s only natural for our brains to develop compression algorithms. If we noticed and remembered everything, always, we’d be wrecks. Our brains have an incredible ability to simplify the world around us via assumptions. These assumptions are typically formed relative to our values. It’s this combination of observations and assumptions that form our unique conscious realities.

And it’s these inevitable flaws in our assumptions that create our blind spots. The trick is in identifying and fixing those blind-spots that will matter down the road.

The Discovery of Blind Spots

I have a good friend, one of the smartest people I know, who struggled most of his life with weight loss. On multiple occasions I tried to bring different diet strategies up with him and was dismissed. At one point he even said, “You can’t use values to predict what someone is going to eat. People are impulsive and just eat whatever they want to.”

It’s particularly ironic because this is the same friend who has the mantra, “you don’t know what you don’t know!”

Seeing the stonewall, I backed off to try a more subtle approach, delivering lunches to spur conversation, etc. Thankfully, he had another friend whom he was looking to impress that presented the weight-loss topic an accompanying book in the right way. After reading loads of books and successfully applying the material, he’s lost a lot of weight and is on the road to health again. The problem is he thinks he’s discovered the secret to weight-loss and is now the authority needing to educate the rest of us — another blind-spot.

I’ve noticed I receive a few responses when I discover a true blind-spot in someone else: 1) avoidance, 2) denial, and 3) an overly long blank stare.

It’s no coincidence that Alcoholics Anonymous preaches the mantra, “admitting you have a problem is the first step to recovery.” Identifying you have a blind-spot makes it a value that you can begin building knowledge about.

Another response I often get and give is, “I never thought about it like that.” This is someone who has constructed knowledge in an area, but had a small blind-spot in putting it together. These are relatively easy fixes that people are more receptive to and are often fixed with just that response.

It’s the BIG blind-spots that are a lot harder to remedy. To use a thermodynamic analogy, a person’s information capacity for a subject is like the heat capacity: Cv=du/dT where internal energy (u) is like values and temperature (T) is like resources. If a person has little to no information capacity for a topic (due to a blind spot) it’s going to take a LOT of effort (dT) to influence or change their values (du) in any appreciable way.

Correcting Blind-spots

In his fantastic autobiographical book, “Why we Make Things and Why it Matters: The Education of a Craftsman,” author Peter Korn establishes that people engage in an artistic or creative pursuit because they believe that afterwords they will somehow be changed by it.

As the wisdom of Lao Tze says, “Tell me and I’ll forget. Show me and I may remember. Involve me and I’ll understand.”

We find and most effectively fix our blind-spots by doing things. It’s what shapes our consciousness. From my friend that discovered weight-loss to the discovery of my maple kitchen cabinets, it’s these reality-based feedback loops that shape our realities. It’s the essence of scientific inquiry and research.

So take that road-less-traveled. Start a vacation with no plans. Stumble-upon. Improvise. Go too slow before going too fast. Above all listen.

See our world.

I want no part of a future where technology meets my every value and need such that I become blind.

Project Mobius — Spokane’s Hydrogen Future

Please, allow the students from the Washington Innovation for Sustainable Energy (WISE) club to present Project Mobius, a hydrogen power-to-gas system for Spokane’s Riverfront Park. The project is the club’s submission for the 2017-2018 Hydrogen Education Foundation contest “Designing a power-to-gas system“:

The team members include: Mathew Hunt, Lee Taylor, Ryan Hamilton, Timothy Eckhart, Ashley Mills, Chloe Nichol, Austin Anderson, Austin Dowell, Joseph Ostheller, Nicholas Potter, and Spencer Seeberger. The team was advised by Ian Richardson and Jake Leachman. External project stakeholders that provided advise on the project include Steve Wenke at Avista Corporation, Gary Higgenbottom from ITM-Power, William Fuglevand at Plug Power, and Kim Zentz of the Spokane SmartCity/Urbanova project and WSU.

The entire report submitted for the competition is available here: 2017_HEF_CONTEST_WSU_SUBMISSION

A brochure on the project is here: 2017_H2_CONTEST_WSU_BROCHURE_SUBMISSION

The team selected Riverfront Park in downtown Spokane to be the location of the system due to the history of the site with the 1974 World’s Fair, which was the first environmentally themed World’s Fair. Avista has an available water turbine in a nearby diversion dam that can provide 576 kW of power to the electrolyzer, which will produce 225 kg of hydrogen per day. The hydrogen can be injected into the natural gas grid or used for fueling hydrogen fuel-cell powered vehicles. The project is estimated to displace over 2000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions every year, or the estimated emissions of 430 cars.

The shape of the electrolyzer container and the two adjacent 20′ hydrogen storage containers is a Mobius strip from the ’74 World’s Fair — to symbolize the never-ending recycling of energy epitomized by hydrogen from water.

Regardless of whether they win the competition, the team may have started the first large-scale public hydrogen project for the Pacific Northwest!

Washington State University