Love is what will keep you going. Sometimes the other reasons you have for doing something – money, obligation, a sense of purpose – will all dry up, and you will have only the fount of love from which to draw to quench that thirst, that need for your next heartbeat, that next breath, that next wish to see the new day. Love is that wellspring from which you truly drink. When considering why that next cup of water, sure consider the hemodynamic (in)stability of dehydration sure, but consider also love.
Philosophy is best understood through metaphor. At the very least the former’s points and pricks are made more tolerable by the latter. To explain my philosophy of biomedical instrumentation today I deploy two: a panopticon and a pandemic.
Some people, at the beginning of these things, cannot believe I am going to stand up here for the next hour reading off a piece of paper, generally without pause. Those that know me, know that indeed I am the sort to stand here, prattle on, wax poetic, try to bring a tear to an eye or two (if but my own), and spend the next hour reading off this piece of paper, generally without pause. It is a comment on what I feel it means to comment on things I think are important. And I think lining up a few words to express how I feel about a topic I care about to an audience I have come to know and respect is a good use of my time (as much as I have remaining), my talents (such as they are), and my professional capacities (may I always meet and exceed them!). Those who had not really known me prior to this day, will, by the end, know at least that much.
This will mark the third such time I have put together thoughts on the matter regarding my own particular philosophy on the subject that brings us together day after day. My philosophy might differ markedly from yours. For one, my thoughts on the class rarely revolve around the grades, a fact ever before the minds of some participants in this class. To the extent I pay them any mind, I hope they serve as honest assessments made by one’s experienced peer. And perhaps this philosophy is best started there. As with all assessments, even with all precautions and guards for one’s objectivity, at the end of the day, what I say – present speech included – is just one man’s opinion. And while I have tried to hone this opinion to be as reasonable and knowledgeable as possible in the subject of the class, the long and short of it is, I am just one man with just a few dozen hours at my disposal to introduce you to as much science, engineering, technology, mathematics, economics, law, societal impacts, ethics, and figures of importance in the biomedical fields as possible and to judge your capabilities of retainment, applications, explanation, and prediction given fundamental knowledge, seen as some ending “grade” to you. And I only have a few dozens of hours to do all that. And while I try to be thorough, precise, understanding, I am but human and can err with the best of them. To accept, understand, and seek to fix our errors is a definition of our best effort. And I employ it here.
Some of this, I think should understand, is artifice. This is not the way the world is, not the world works, not the way people work within it.
This is a school. This is a schoolhouse. I am a school teacher within it. I try to hallow its halls by getting those walking their lengths talking at lengths about things worth knowing and showing to the world.
The only thing special about this place is the people. And you are the people. Emptied of you, this place has the mere residue of wonder.
Some of this, I think you should understand, is artifice.
In circuits there is repetition. Loops, paths, meanderings. Time and again we end up at the same place, having tread the same paths we have before, or those similar. Indeed many of our analyses require such circuitous wanderings. We must conserve energy, mass, charge. Summing things up, we are often left with a zero: a numerical nothing that still must go around in a circle — a circuit — to express itself. There can be meaning in repetition.
I generally don’t speak candidly of my experience in research laboratories. As I stand before you today, I cannot swear to the source of my reservation, but I can confidently attest to its presence. I do not talk about what really goes on in any laboratory environment to anyone outside of that laboratory environment. Nor do others, I find. For all the plaudits the “openness” of science gets, there is definitely an ever-present, seldom addressed dark arts vibe to the whole business, no matter how professionalized. And while there are a great many reasons why this might be the case, I suspect some significant portion of it comes from the phenomena that emerges when you get a bunch of smart people in a room all doing something worth a damn. Such phenomena include but are not limited to grace under pressure, communication in dynamic settings, synthesis of disparate materials. These are all good things. These are all especially good things to biomedical engineers.
I passed a frozen pond in a graveyard today, which I think is a fitting metaphor for our energies here at the end of the semester. After time and effort, persistence and follow-through, we have arrived, as we must, at the end. How we face such an end is indicative of our character. It has been said that one prepares their whole life for their final act. Our purpose here is not so grand nor so terminal. It is the closing of a single point in time and space where we all learned similar things. For now, we must scatter. I for one hope the winds of happenstance and circumstance bring us back together. At least in parts. At least so that we might see what we have made of this thing call “life” we spent so much time studying.
To know what one is doing is second only to knowing why one does it in the prioritization of our knowledge. Such a why may be arrived at naturally, self-evidently, or it may arise only after endeavor, heartache, consternation. It may be plainly obvious (why the nose of my face is meant to hold up my glasses, that much is clear) or circle oblivion (such as a child’s sustained attack of curiosity: to hold up my glasses – why?– so that I might see – why? – so that I might read – why? – so that I might learn – why? – so that I might know – why? – so that I might answer your questions – why?). Indeed, why might I want to answer your questions, the questions of burgeoning engineers? To help you learn, to help you know, to help you help the world? To answer any of these whys, I contend, requires a philosophy. That is a structural-functional relationship guided by principles serving the logic of intended ends. And if you give me about one more hour of your time, I would like to explain what has been my philosophy of this class, a subset of my particular philosophy of engineering.
For as long as I can hope to teach at fine universities such as the great one that employs me, I will endeavor to have some deep and profound thoughts on the practice of my craft here. To that end (and for many others), at the conclusion of each class I teach, I put together a few words outlining what it is I think we have done here and why I think it is important. What follows is still an experimental way of reporting this information: a rather long rant-style essay on the importance of our subject matter, with an accompaniment via slideshow. All those who may subject themselves to listening to aforementioned “rant” should do so knowing that at any time and for any reason, they should feel as free as possible to tune out, leave, or otherwise disengage yourself from my rambling. Indeed, there will be rambling.
I was hoping to deliver this speech on a day whose morning did not begin with snow falling. The gods on that front have not obliged. But if you will, I would like to give a short speech on what I believe my philosophy has been through this course. I believe such guiding principles – such a philosophy – are necessary for the doing of anything well. As I intend to do this job well for many years yet to come, I have decided, even at this early stage in my career, that every class, every semester, I would like to write out what I believe each class was and why I think it was important.
To have a philosophy of something is to know more of something than you need. Philosophies are the luxury of the unhurried. And they flourish best, I’ve found, on academic grounds. Where there is time to bask in the shade of the ivory tower, overlooking the quote real world. Of my experiences in this quote real world, I have personally found the rarified airs we breathe here on campus to be of the most stimulating sort, and those best approximating it out there are and will continue to be secondbest and below. Put in a bullet, “what you’re doing at this university is important” and in an off-bullet “take the time to do it right.” Jump-question: “How will I know I have taken the time to do it right?” Splash-bullet: A philosophy.”
We are born into this world unknown, unknowing; our hands having grasped little beyond a familial finger or two, the soles of our feet having not yet tasted the earth, our heads unsupported with minds unformed. All our lives we must stumble and bumble our way through to discover how the world works and how we work within it. But from the moment dawn’s rosy red fingers interlock with ours that first time, we have with us a condition, a condition that, if you’ll allow me to introduce the word into our lexicon, I call corposis: the condition of having a body. The biomedical condition.
Learning, at base, is the process by which one erects the mental, practical, and social structures necessary for the thinking through of new thoughts. So readily does this process lend itself to variety – it can be seen equally in the furrowed brow in the library and the shared laugh at the benchtop – that a philosophy is indeed necessary to chart our way through its terrain. From this variety, many effective learning patterns emerge that share features necessary for success – an honest search for the truth, an open dialogue amongst those honestly searching, an integration of differing opinions – and collectively suggest a bearing for my own philosophy of teaching, best triangulated by three aspects: a strong understanding of fundamentals; the creative synthesis of these fundamentals to solve problems; and an appreciation of the broader context in which these solutions are situated. This approach to education ensures confidence, creativity, and compassion, three qualities I wish to see in every engineer.