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Mechanical aptitude test


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When I was working on my MS (1977), in the laboratory next to mine was a fusion experiment, which included an elongated glass tube filled with hydrogen (with at least some deuterium). The professor working on the experiment was trying to heat the gas into the plasma state using microwaves. His graduate student wanted to make some change to the apparatus. I never heard what nor would I have remembered, considering what happened next. He tried to unscrew the "cap" on one end with his hands--a bad idea, considering the contents and that it was made of glass. He put his leather belt around it and tried harder. He eventually borrowed a meter-long pipe wrench from maintenance, put that on the glass container, his foot on the support, and pulled with all his might. Needless to say it cracked into many pieces, releasing the hydrogen. The chaos that ensued was hysterical. The professor was screaming at him for turning it the wrong way and not knowing a right-hand from a left-hand thread. No one seemed concerned with the stupidity of putting a pipe wrench to a glass tube. The department head showed up, realized the hydrogen had been released, and insisted it be captured and returned to the tube--as if that were possible. Then he wanted to evacuate the school so that we wouldn't asphyxiate--as if that were a problem in this case. I tried to explain that the hydrogen had long since risen and leaked into the great outdoors. Clearly, there was a serious lack of mechanical aptitude! Of course, these were physicists and not engineers. If you can't jump-start a car or change a tire without killing anyone or starting a fire, you should pursue something besides engineering. How about this for a mechanical aptitude test: Give the prospective student a disassembled 5-speed transmission in a box. If they can put it back together, extend the secret engineer's handshake and welcome them into the program! I actually had to answer the following question during my doctoral defense (I'm not complaining. I was glad to do so. It was asked by Dr. Jeffrey W. Hodgson): As you climb up a ladder leaning against the side of a house, is it more or less likely too "kick out" as you get further up? Hint: the vertical forces are the same, but the moment arm changes.

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