The force that through the green fuse
The following lecture was delivered by Desmond Green, a prominent UNB alumnus, entrepreneur, philanthropist and community volunteer. Green gave the lecture as part of the Chemical Engineering department’s 50th anniversary celebrations this fall.
It is an honour and a joy to inaugurate this series of lectures in our great university.
My objective this evening is to share with you how Chemical Engineering as a course of study may touch almost every part of a life. It teaches intellectual and personal disciplines which may shape how we are in the world
Like a good chef I have tried to “reduce” the sauce (a chemical engineering operation using heat transfer to evaporate those elements that do not contribute to the flavour) and capture and concentrate the essence and intensity of the flavour in a drop to be appreciated by the five senses.
In that drop there is just one core thought to share with you this evening. It is about chaos and order, freedom and control. It is about structure and the part it plays in our lives. It is about molecules and love of life.
It started at University College Dublin in the late 1950′s and the booster rockets kicked in for me here in Fredericton, New Brunswick in the early 1960′s.
You will I hope forgive me for taking a scenic tour, or as James Joyce would famously say in Finnegans Wake ‘a commodious vicus of recirculation’ to get to the heart of this one thought. Such journeys are a luxury afforded to the Irish. The Irish have long had a connection with New Brunswick. Lord Edward FitzGerald , aged 23,was stationed here in Fredericton in 1788.
He fled Ireland to get away from the villanies of the Irish Parliament and all the unhappy complications of a life in London resulting from an unhappy love affair. Ten years later he was involved in the rebellion of 1798 – a tragic and unhappy affair. In the early 19th century many Irish came to New Brunswick as part of the settlement after the Napoleonic wars. In the mid 19th century, Canada and in particular St John and several rural communities in New Brunswick became the home – a place in which to survive and then flourish – for over 30,000 Irish men, women and children escaping from my country’s terrible famine.
In 1891-2, a hundred years after Lord Edward FitzGerald, Douglas Hyde, an extraordinary man who was later President of the newly independent Ireland, came here as Professor of Modern Languages on the invitation of another Trinity College Dublin graduate. Hyde could not break down the Anglicised culture of Trinity and after many refusals to recognise the Irish language as a suitable language for study he left the country and came here to salve his soul and recover. His diaries of his time here – and his poetry in memory of this place – are wonderful reading.
My connection with New Brunswick began in 1961, the year that the Department of Chemical Engineering was founded at UNB. Les Shemilt, the dynamic Chair of the Department, offered post graduate scholarships to three of the University College Dublin Chemical Engineering graduating class of 1961. The offer was accepted by Diarmuid McCarthy, and deferred by me. Diarmuid was the pioneer and made such a good impression that the offer was made again the following year to Felix Connolly and I. We arrived in September 1962. Thus I did post graduate work and taught here an alarmingly long time ago.
The time at UNB was a major turning point in my life and I can truthfully say that this University is my second spiritual home
There is an unmistakeable sense in which a medical school trains people to be doctors, a plumbing course trains people to work with pipes and water and a music academy may help you to play a musical instrument. There is a sense that if you do not have a direct connection from your education to your career, you have somehow dropped out. The medic working in a pharmaceutical plant may appear to be in the same place as a history graduate breaking codes or a Classics graduate working as a spy.
It is very easy for those of us who have ever taught in a university to encourage this mindset. Yet, if our History Department was to measure its success on the percentage of its undergraduates who became professional academic historians, it would be failing in its own terms. No. The vast majority of the graduates of a university take a “way of thinking” with them, not a particular vocation. The lucky undergraduates are those who are in love with what they study; they will find a marriage between their lives and the university. They will grow.
There is a sort of sliding scale in what we study after we leave high school. These range from the clearly vocation-directed courses to those that are more generalist. Engineers are somewhere in the middle. It is not just a training how “to do”; it is also a training how “to be”. For that, I am forever grateful to UNB.
There is an obvious sense in which I have made direct use of what I learned from my teachers, colleagues and other students here as a chemical engineer. There is a much less obvious sense in which I have made indirect use of the way in which I was transformed during my time here. My preconceived social, cultural and religious beliefs were challenged by my connection and contact with other post graduates from China, India, Korea, Thailand, Egypt, England, Scotland, Kenya, Nigeria, Guyana and even Ireland.
We sought some truth and argued with the passions of our ignorances, usually late into the night, and although coherence was barely grasped the process sanded away the inconsistencies in our thinking and shared wisdoms percolated our most trenchantly held positions. And we connected with more respect. The ego chastened. The community enhanced.
The Irish travel. In the 19th century, it was the forced emigration (to, as I said St John) amongst other places. This was from an Ireland whose economic lifeblood was being sapped by its powerful neighbour. In the 20th century, we struggled to gain our freedom and establish an independent sovereign State. We did this and the pinnacle of success was the growling, roaring Celtic Tiger. In the 21st century the Tiger was caught by the tail. Hubris brought it low. We are now trying to recover.
Many of our writers, including James Joyce and Sam Beckett, left because they felt that they could breathe more freely away from what was then an inward-looking village mentality at home.
Ireland is a nexus of contradictions. Beneath the oppressive eye of a church, it was always slightly anarchic, resistant to authority of any type. Ireland was never conquered by the Romans which may account for their inherent distrust of Central Government. Whether in bright times or dark days, there is wildness there. It can be irritatingly adolescent in its approach to politics and economics; it is generally vastly entertaining in its approach to life.
As a wandering Irishman, I came to this side of the Atlantic for post graduate study. Over the past decades, there has been a complex path that now allows me to escape from my land of birth once again – this time, as a citizen of the European Community, to the peace of Portugal.
Between my first and most recent last emigration, the greater part of my working life was involved in the foundation and management of a chemical waste management company in Ireland.
Let us step back fifty years, to the early days of this Department of Chemical Engineering. We thought in different ways. We dreamed different dreams. The 1960s brought a youth culture to the fore. Very many of us had a deep suspicion of almost everything our parents had believed – politically, religiously, socially, economically. It was a time for new thoughts to bloom.
In the 1960s, Ireland had decided that, in order to prosper and provide jobs at home Ireland for its people, it must change its point of view. Essentially, it must look outwards. The country decided to invest in education and to move to an open economy. It dismantled its tariff barriers against imports and went out to attract capital, technology and the industries of the future. These industries would have a high spend on R&D and their products could be exported from Europe’s westernmost island without a penalty arising from geographical location. The two lead industries chosen were pharmaceuticals and information technology.
There was a lot of waking up in the early sixties. Environmental as well as sexual. In 1962, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, a shocking wake up call to a society that was polluting its world. She died two years later but over that decade, her still small voice snowballed into a roar.
In April 1970, that roar was the voice of millions in the first “Earth Day”. The US Environmental Protection Agency was conceived and birthed and taking its first faltering steps by the end of that year and by 1976 the first legislation dealing with hazardous waste was on the books and the first hazardous waste incinerators were operational by 1981.
In 1971, motivated by their vision of a green and peaceful world, a small team of activists set sail from Vancouver, in an old fishing boat. These activists, the founders of Greenpeace, believed a few individuals could make a difference.
Environment Canada was set up in 1971. Other parts of the world followed. The Love Canal disaster discovered or rather uncovered in 1976 hit the headlines in the USA. The first Haz Waste facility in Canada was built in Swan Hills, Alberta in 1987.
With that as a backdrop of which I was largely ignorant at that time, I set up MinChem in 1977, initially to supply solvents to the Pharmachem industry. This was a very large market and there was the possibility then of being an independent supplier competing with major players like Shell, BP and then ICI. Because of my contacts in the industry I achieved some success. Within a few months of start up I wrote an article for the Institution of Chemical Engineering Journal about the Irish Pharmachem Industry and their consumption of solvents.
A few weeks later there was a ring on the office doorbell and Ian Smallwood was there. He had just started a solvent recovery company in Sunderland, Northern England, was a chemical engineer and had read my article. He was looking for waste solvents to feed his plant. We formed an immediate friendship and that was how MinChem changed from being a supplier of solvents to managing waste solvents. We identified a company in England who had just built an incinerator specifically targeted at chemical waste solvents and we began to work with them also.
There was no way I could have filled in these dots beforehand but it is always impressive to fill in the dots afterwards.
So do not be concerned if you do not know where you are going. Just realise you are on a journey and be aware of the forks in the road. Choose the road less travelled by understanding that you may only realise this in retrospect but that that choice can make all the difference.
My customers were manufacturing life-saving products in circumstances of very high quality control. They had a nasty problem but they could afford the highest standards of waste management to deal with it. My company set out to solve their problem.
These solutions were not in Ireland. We found them in England, Germany, Denmark, Finland, France and most importantly in Flanders in Belgium. All of these countries had begun to recognise and respond to the problems of chemical waste in the mid to late seventies.
Ireland became a hub for the US pharmaceutical industry in Europe. With them, Minchem developed new technologies, means to do the right thing in the right way. We recovered, recycled and finally burned waste. When costs of fuel rose, we looked at the embedded calorific value of this waste. The first to make use of this was the cement industry.
We grew slowly at the beginning and I remember well struggling to reach a turnover of €1 million. We hovered between 950k and 1 million for three years and then broke through and never looked back.
We had identified that a group of companies committed to quality and environmental responsibility had a problem which did not fit into their core competency. We had a solution to their problem and we operated to standards which were equivalent to theirs. We also spoke their language, that is the language of chemical engineering.Operating from similar societal and cultural backgrounds and speaking a common language we did business at a price which they accepted and which allowed us to make a profit.
As a chemical engineer I was driven mainly by finding appropriate solutions to waste problems – convinced that I could then convince customers to adopt that solution. If we did things correctly, profit would follow.
I had ideas about how I wanted to run a company and I was able to test these theories out in practice. Overall I made sure that all our staff were in the upper quartile of remuneration for that type of work.
We invested heavily in training and education and if an employee decided to move on, we wanted to ensure that their time with us would have been worthwhile to them and to us.
We developed core values and these were included in our mission statement. These focussed on the responsibility of MinChem to the employees and to customers. For employees : an excellent and safe working environment, communication, continuous training, well paid and a share of profits. For the customers a commitment to sustainable solutions, fair price, best technology. These remain largely unchanged.
As our company grew, the issues we faced were changed. I appointed new directors to my Board to guide and assist me. The purpose of these independent directors was to ride shotgun on me to ensure that my flights of fancy would be scrutinised carefully and assessed by people who were as passionate about progress as I was but who provided another point of view. They were to provide an unbiased, independent and experienced perspective. Their advice and support were invaluable.
In the Spring of 1990, I had invited an old college friend of mine, a former executive with the Irish Industrial Development Company to join the Board of Minchem. He had spent many years in the seventies and eighties attracting pharmaceutical companies to invest in Ireland and as a result ten of the top twelve companies built plants in Ireland.
These were all major customers of mine. Eoin was a marketing guru who qualified in Physics and he joined the Board in April. A month later, I was diagnosed with heart disease and had to have a bypass. I was out for about three months. On my return I sat down with Eoin to be briefed. As ever his report was succinct and to the point:- “Since you left in May we have increased profitability and sales each month. So… I think you should buzz off now for another three months and see how we get on.”
We also realised that we were not just in the “moving of dangerous stuff” business. We were in the knowledge and information management business.
Calling on experience I had had in the late sixties in the USA we invested heavily in IT to streamline this. We patented the intellectual property in the program and it is now the basis of operating several businesses in the Indaver group.
Effective and efficient knowledge management is a prerequisite for creativity and innovation. Knowledge resides throughout the company and the trick was to tap into it without preconceptions about where it resides, what it might be or what its impact might be.
In the nineties the company was growing quickly, at a compound rate of 15% and I decided that we needed to bring in professional management. So, I hired a much younger chemical engineer John Ahern and appointed him General Manager. One of my concerns was that the management structure did not fit my idea of equality and I did not like the way there were always vertical lines of authority. However I could not figure out a better system. I gave the problem to John.
He arrived in with his solution about a week later. He knew I was interested in Hurling, our national sport and he had seen a program from a recent match lying on my desk. He proposed that we structure the company like a hurling team. Each person was equally important and each person had a specific position on the field of play.
The full forward line were the sales people. The half forward line were the marketing. The centre field were logistics. The half back line were the administration and the full back line were the accounts. John, as General Manager was in goal and if the other members of the team did not play well he would be peppered with shots on goal.
I was over the moon, elated and delighted by his insight, wisdom and lateral thinking.
I was on a high for over three days. Then one day it dawned on me that I was not on the team. I phoned him to ask with a certain amount of puzzled anger
“Where am I”?
“Oh” he said “you are on the sideline now, advising”
I had never before been sidelined so elegantly in my life. My previous three days of enthusiasm and boasting about how brilliant my General Manager was, left me with no other option than acceptance. It was time to move over. We had landed on a shore I had not even dreamed of and I was beached.
No matter. We worked closely together for many years.
So much of all of this was due to luck or chance. It was not due to extensive or intensive planning. We arrived at destinations we never dreamed existed.
Louis Pasteur noted “In the field of observation, chance favours the prepared mind.”
This is quoted approvingly by Simon Singh. They saw that for certain discoveries, there was an element of chance but also an element of creativity. The paradox is that the mind could be more creative if it was prepared.
One of the purposes of a chemical engineering education is to prepare the mind.
I tried to put this into effect in Minchem with its stated mission which I referred to previously. We were beginning to operate in a knowledge-based economy and knowledge management would become a major competitive advantage. We did not really know that at the time but again looking back on it that is what we were reaching out towards. We were preparing again but not sure for what. We were moving to handling knowledge in a smarter, faster, more efficient , more creative and more vigilant way. This combined with a sense of initiative, we discovered, formed a basis for innovation.
So I was back home in Ireland running a waste management company. I was thinking of ways to apply my chemical engineering background to my working and daily life. I helped set up a labelling system for transporting toxic chemicals. In the 1970s, legislators had totally impractical and somewhat academic systems for labeling transported goods (for example the French Kemmler system). This left absent such basic ingredients as information to emergency authorities in the event of an incident.
Consequently, I became concerned at the systems that our own and other companies were using for the transport of such substances. The government regulations which covered our industry did not seem to me to be fit for purpose. In those days, incredible though it may seem to anyone in industry today, the regulations were too lenient.
Applying techniques honed here in New Brunswick, I developed new systems of cleaning out containers before they were put back into service. This saved a life, a life saved thanks to what your Department here had taught me.
My daily working life was taking waste from pharmaceutical companies and disposing of it in a sustainable manner. The chemical engineer in me became increasingly uneasy that we in Ireland had no facilities for dealing with our own chemical waste. I found solutions in various European countries and the waste was exported for recycling, recovery, treatment and incineration.
I always believed in the “Proximity Principle” which states that waste should be treated as close to the source as possible. I felt that exporting our waste was not a sustainable long term solution. So, from early on, I wanted Ireland to have a proper waste management infrastructure commensurate with our industrial infrastructure.
MinChem, while the leading and largest Hazardous waste management company in Ireland, did not have the resources to invest in infrastructure. I found a partner in Flanders in Belgium. We worked together for several years and eventually I sold my company to Indaver. Indaver Ireland, is now a company employing about 120 persons and is currently building a €130 million waste-to-energy facility, the first in Ireland, in Meath which will employ a further fifty. This will become a critically important part of Ireland’s national waste management infrastructure. There is a commitment to invest a further €200 million in infrastructure. I could never have done that on my own.
We are proud of the male to female ratio in my former company. The overall ratio in the European group operating in eight countries is 25% women whilst in Ireland it is 60% women.
Love of life itself propels us. Enthusiasm is the rocket fuel. We have our own very different ways of shaping the direction of our lives. Chemical engineering gave me a structure for funnelling that force of nature. It helped me put structure on process.
For example, there was a time in my life when I was working for a chemical plant in Florida. The development lab was using gas chromatographs to analyse the results of various reactions. In those days the analysis was done by examining the charts produced and by tediously counting the squares on the graph paper. So I was looking at this device which fed a signal to a pen: the pen traced a line on a roll of squared paper. At the end of this sophisticated piece of equipment, some unfortunate employee had to squint at this paper and count the squares.
It was not for this that New Brunswick trained me. I hard-wired the output from the analyser with telephone cable and strung it from the lab across part of the plant and hard wired the other end into my old IBM 1800 computer. I wrote a comparatively simple program which allowed me to generate more accurate analyse, quicker and with much less misery.
Every practicing engineer here will have a raft of such stories. They are fun. We enjoy them. An older engineer I knew told me that the most fundamental rule in Chemical Engineering was “What goes in must come out and what comes out must not have to go in again”. The engineer is accustomed to getting it right first time. Of course there are miscalculations but our whole mindset is to see that we have one shot at it. A nuclear power plant, a bridge, a chemical process in a pharmaceutical company, the foundations of your neighbour’s house… it is all the same. It is not great if you have to take a second shot at it.
It is about process, being meticulous about capturing all the bits, doing things in the right order, ensuring that you get out of it what you had intended. You can apply this to anything.
When my children were growing up, I became concerned about a critical part of the education process. We were living in my home country of Ireland – a place of many charms, as I said earlier, but up until quite recently, a place under a particular cloud. Primary education in Ireland was dominated by one religious group. How could our children grow up to respect diversity if there was no diversity in the first schools they attended? The parent in me was troubled; the engineer in me saw an unsustainable, closed and fundamentally unstable process.
The dominant religion in Ireland sought to control everything around it. It sought a closed system. Every reaction was to be contained and thus the freedom of the various reactants would be restricted. It wanted to deny the right to move freely. This was supposedly all for the greater good because, of course, freedom could result in chaos. Ordinary citizens were not trusted to make the “right” decisions. These decisions had to be made for them. Now that is grand for molecules; it is not grand for the human spirit. This engineer began to walk the stony beaches and adjoining hills around Dublin Bay, thinking about freedom and structures.
We want to be free; we also know that structures can empower us, by focussing our energy. Which is better?
We know that a constrained life is one in which the individual does not flourish to the full; we also know that the person with the plan is the one who wins.
Chaos versus order. Freedom versus control. Molecules. People. Love of life.
Structure empowers. Let me give you an example. Two and a half thousand years ago, the men from the tiny city state of Athens faced the world’s most powerful empire, the Persians. The Athenians were vastly outnumbered but they had little choice but to engage in battle to defend their families and their home. The mighty Persian cavalry mockingly dismissed the puny Athenians. As this little Greek force charged, Persian archers rained arrows on them but this little band of men persisted against the odds. How?
The men of Athens had structure. I would use my left arm to hold a shield over my neighbour’s body, protecting him. This allowed my right to wield my short sword with agility. My neighbour to the right protected my body. We march at running pace into the force of an enemy. Our numbers are so scarce, the breadth of the field so big, that we are a frighteningly thin line. We have no choice. We shake in terror. We run forward. We hold our structure. We win.
That battle on the fields of Marathon was one of the great “V-junctions” of our civilisation. Things would have been different if the battle had gone the other way. As it was, the Greek city state survived.
Athenian democracy showed that its political structure – all for one and one for all – could be expressed as military structure. It was a winning formula. As Hegel said about it: “history trembled in the balance”.
The person with the plan is the person who wins. Yet, to live our entire lives as if we are parts of a machine is stultifying. The twentieth century gave us this in extreme form in the insanity of fascism and the deadening miasma of state socialism. By looking at people as bits in a machine, almost any level of cruelty can be twisted to make sense. From Auschwitz to the killing fields of Cambodia, humans were inhuman.
Structure does make us stronger… but for what.
With extraordinary prescience, William Butler Yeats tasted the coming madness of his century as early as 1920.
“Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”
Murderous certainties engulfed the world in the decades that followed.
Some older “certainties” were not so lethal but they were stultifying. The dominant religious voices in the Irish education system lauded structure. “It will make you strong” they said. “We need such rigidities to give us back bone in our lives”. Now I didn’t think so but I still found it difficult to see how I could help my children survive the oppressive Irish education system.
Structures are often put in place after liberation after the wild hoorah of freedom. We have something so good. How can we make it endure without having to reinvent the wheel for each generation? The old structures were oppressive banish them and replace them with new structures. Maybe we have to clip the edges of freedom if we are going to give the next generation the benefits of what served us and our parents so well. There is some sense in that but that is not how things generally work out. Before long, the structures have a status and are protected for their own sake. We forget why we built the structure. It is for us, not us for it.
Probably the most successful political organisation in known history is the Roman Catholic Church. While it claims two thousand years, it has survived in its present form for about half that time. Still, a thousand years is quite a record. From about the end of the 11th century, this church became the first multinational, centrally controlled organisation.
We have a structured church set up on teachings that say:-
“Suffer the little children to come unto me and forbid them not, for of such is the kingdom of God”…. “But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea”.
This is the same structured church that systematically – at the highest levels – covered up the abuse of children who had been entrusted to their care. The leaders saw the structure as more important than the spirit the structure was supposed to serve.
This is not a point about that church or about religions in general. It is a point about how we can loose the plot if we put the structure ahead of our own innate love of life.
Look at the noble aspirations of Karl Marx’s teaching
“From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”.
Stalin (amongst so many others) perverted Marx’s teaching through structure that dehumanised, a structure whose purpose was to serve… not humanity but… the structure.
Such insanities can last for hundreds of years.
Beware the structures that are sacred. Question them. As Jacob Bronowski said “Ask the Impertinent Question and you are on the way to a Pertinent Answer”.
I had a poster with this quotation hanging in my office to remind my employees to ask me such questions and they did. And we progressed.
So now back to my own century, my own country, my own children and their education. How could I apply any of this for them?
The engineer within me is essentially human. Structure can enrich us but it must be worn as a loose cloak. The trick is to get the balance. That was the guiding spirit that led some of my friends and I to start an entirely new sort of primary education in Ireland.
We wanted our children to flourish, to grow from within themselves, not as directed by some external force. Yet, we also wanted the benefit of structure.
We wanted the school to be part of the national system. We wanted people to be able to exercise their constitutional right to have their children educated as they wanted.
We had to convince the Government. The Church fought back. We conducted a survey in the target area for the new school. The survey was conducted with scientific precision and its results have never been questioned. The people were crying out for the children to be set free of the burdens that had weighed down the parents. Structure was shield. So we set up a school that was multi-denominational, with all children having equal rights of access to the school. No child would be an outsider. Gone would be the days of catholic children on a list for their local school and protestant children off to another.
We simply wanted all our children – irrespective of their social, cultural or religious backgrounds to be equally respected. We were co-educational and were determined to encourage our children to explore their full range of abilities and opportunities. We started with the children and helped them along with their own adventures, introducing them along the way to as wide a menu of experience as was practical.
We respected the professionalism of the enthused teachers and we, as parents, worked closely with them in fostering an atmosphere of academic adventure. We developed a core religious education program which was an ethical education curriculum for all our schools. The Educate Together motto is “Learn together to Live Together”. Our curriculum was the concrete expression of what it means to live this out.
The first of these schools was named after my village – The Dalkey School Project. It later took hold throughout the country as Educate Together which opened its 58th primary school in September. We plan to open 45 more primary schools and the first second level school in the next few years. Current market research indicates that over 60% of Parents would prefer multidenominational education.
This engineer started with a faulty process, a pressurised and unhealthy compression of the human spirit. He could see the output. He wasn’t satisfied. His friends and he changed the input, the process and so the output. We used structure but tried not to be dominated by it. We set the child’s spirit free but we also supported it.
Each child should have as wide a vision from which to choose a path. I was so very fortunate to have found such a discipline as chemical engineering and I repeat my thanks to this great university for nurturing that.
At the other end of life are those who are so burdened by life-threatening illnesses and pain that they find it difficult to think clearly. This engineer and his friends refused to accept that this is how so many lives had to be. Inspired by the writings and teachings of Elizabeth Kubler Ross. We thought about how people live, how they die, how they essentially are in space and time. This had practical expression in the organisation Turning Point which provides psychotherapy and counselling services for people affected by bereavement, life threatening illness and life crises.
So what is life?
I know I may be stretching the Irish connection a bit here but we, in Ireland, do sort of lay claim to a man who had an ingenious scientist’s take on this philosophical question.
The physicist Erwin Schrödinger was enticed out of Germany in the 1930s to set up the Institute for Advanced Studies in Dublin. Schrödinger sought to define what life is from within the framework of his own discipline. That is, from within the laws of physics as understood through quantum mechanics. His extraordinary little book “What is Life” is lauded today in the scientific community because of Schrödinger’s prescience: from statistical principles, he postulated essential characteristics about our genetic code several years before James Watson and Francis Crick.
For our purposes, Schrödinger’s paper is intriguing where he meets the limits of his own conceptual scheme. In short, he said life is a mechanism feeding on ‘negative entropy’; it is a reversal of the second law of thermodynamics.
He compares a living organism to a clock.
“The most striking features are: first, the curious distribution of the cogs in a many-celled organism….. and secondly, the fact that a single cog is not of coarse human make, but is the finest masterpiece ever achieved along the lines of the Lord’s quantum mechanics”.
He then comes across a difficulty.
“Immediate experiences in themselves, however various and disparate they be, are logically incapable of contradicting each other. So let us see whether we cannot draw the correct, non-contradictory conclusion from the following two premises:
(i) My body functions as a pure mechanism according to the Laws of Nature.
(ii) Yet I know, by incontrovertible direct experience, that I am directing its motions, of which I foresee the effects, that may be fateful and all-important, in which case I feel and take full responsibility for them.”
This leads him to say that “I am the person, if any, who controls the ‘motions of the atoms’ according to the Laws of Nature… I have become God”.
I love Schrödinger not just for his genius but because he had the courage to take adventures outside his own discipline. Also, he reminds me that most things worth a damn have an unresolved contradiction nestling within them.
Life is not tidy. It is different to everything else. We pervert it if we treat it as a machine that can be worked from the outside. It is a self-generating thing of beauty that gets its sap, its energy, its direction from the inside. We may support a plant against the wall of our house with a lattice work; we serve it badly though if we tighten it into the rigid frame. We prevent its petals and leaves reaching out to the sun… in their own way… which is the right way.
We are life. We know it through how we are.
From Dylan Thomas:
“The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.”
This battered engineer – trained in “process”, noting what goes in and what goes out – has tried to see how we can apply that to our lives. We can support while also letting go a bit. Again, we see a contradiction lurking within our thoughts.
Some of you may know of the poet, politician writer Tom Kettle who campaigned for Irish freedom. He was killed leading his company of men in the Battle of the Somme in 1916. His last letter to his daughter had a poem and in the last few lines he explained his ethos, the meaning of his life.
“Died not for Flag nor Emperor nor King
But for a dream, born in a herdsman’s shed
And for the secret scripture of the poor.”
He was a man of principled contradictions who asked of us: “Realise how infinitesimal is the contribution we can make but how infinitely important it is that we make it”.
Real life is made of contradictions, pieces that cannot be made tidy… not even by an engineer.
Things can get disconnected. We engineers find it irresistible to try to fix them. Maybe that is why so many engineers are men. Maybe we need more engineers from Venus and not from Mars. “Fixing” is not always the right approach.
In waste we cannot just concern ourselves with fixing the output – the waste. We ought also to ask if the input can be changed to reduce this particular output.
While we race to ensure that we are not overwhelmed by the output we must fundamentally challenge the economic system that requires such an output to sustain itself. There is a deep contradiction here. We can’t just solve the output we must challenge the whole process.
When I was back in Ireland, running a company and lecturing in University College Dublin, it concerned me that there was a disconnect between the university and industry. So, we collected a significant sum of money and set up “The University Industry Centre” which was about trying to help researchers to commercialise. The engineer in me found the university administration to be “a high inertia system”. Put another way, things just did not happen. It was a system in which every little element protected its own perceived interests.
It had not even got as far as being feudal; it was just systemic paralysis. We saw great people putting energy in… but little coming out. To my fellow engineers here, you know what I mean by an endothermic reaction. It just sucks energy in. We tried to nudge all this along further by setting up the Campus Companies Venture Capital Scheme. Ten universities each contributed and the Government matched funds from them and private enterprise. It was born. It struggled. It won’t die. But it never really lived.
Hey ho, another lost cause. This is not a matter for despair. It is a reminder that we are not machines and cannot be treated as machines. I know this more forcefully from my failures than from the things that worked.
I shared the connection with Canada with a close friend of mine, John Kelly, the Registrar of my other Alma Mate. He convinced the Canadian businessman Craig Dobbin to donate €1 million to a chair of Canadian studies in University College Dublin. There was enough to seed fund the idea of the Ireland Canada University Foundation. Founded in 1993 the Foundation operates two principal programmes annually. The first grants awards of short term visiting scholarships to both Irish and Canadian scholars in support of their research which relates to both countries, and the second is the Irish Language Programme to support the teaching of Gaeilge or Irish in Canadian universities.
One of these scholars came here to St Thomas last year, Michelle Ní Mháirtín. Her report of her time in this community was inspirational. It is a joy to be a member of the Board of the ICUF.
We can have such fun if we harness what is around us, given to us. For example, my chemical engineering and my contact with the Pharmachem industry allowed me to participate in setting up a company that manufactures “made to measure” molecules to supply customers such as the pharmaceutical and flavour & fragrance industry. We thought that with the concentration of Pharmaceutical companies in Ireland there would be opportunities to supply intermediates and even do some R & D work for them. Easier said than done. We are successful on a small scale with fifty employees. A little gem.
We have a core competence in the standard unit operations of organic synthesis and the various operations required for synthesis of chiral compounds. It is a riddle, a puzzle to work out how to make something like synthetic vanilla in a specialised unusual reaction.
We can have even more fun if we see that the structures of thought are devices that we can choose to use. They serve us. They do not have some over-riding intrinsic value that forces us to bow down before them.
The biologist Jean Rostand said “To Hate fatigues”. By contrast, it is love of the world and life itself that drives us. It is energising.
I repeat my gratitude to the University of New Brunswick for the many happy times I have had here and for the tools of thought that you and I sharpened for ourselves on this campus. I remember the inspiration of the Priestman lectures founded I believe by the legendary Professor Frank Toole – another displaced Irishman who abhorred structures that constrained the human spirit both in the laboratory and without. One cannot mention his name without also mentioning Norah. Frank and Norah. That was in fact one word. Their example to us post grads in their concerns both for the life of the intellect and the lives of the less privileged in the community was an inspiration.
And the friends I made here. They are still an essential part of my life. My dearest friends here Dick and Brigid Grant; Dick persisting in Placing a pagan symbol on the highest point on his house at Christmas and forever offering himself as an NDP casndidate; Brigid eternally challenging economic structures and making art. George Strunz did you ever cease to delight in working to confuse the sexual instincts of the budworm; and John Findlay and many other post grad students; Barry Toole, eternally crouched over the piano playing “There once was a Union Maid” ; John Corey dreamily wafting his way through life, Fred Cogswell whose last poem in his collection “Pearls” written after the death of his beloved daughter Carmen I often quote
“When Time has closed my coffin Lid
And left me in the dark for good.
I’ll do no more the things I did.
Thank God I did them while I could.”
Rave on! Rave on!
There was Tom Condon, Neil McGill, Desmond Pacey, Stuart McNutt, Alvin Shaw (was he playing himself in Krapp’s last Tape), Alan Donaldson, Mariano Piquer, Harry Lusher the legendary Colin B and Charlie McGrath the guardian of McConnell Hall and many more all contributing to the energy and dynamism on the Campus. I sing their name out in a litany of the loved and revered.
And then there were the Giants of Chemical Engineering.
The founders of this Department: Les Shemilt, Jules Picot, Chuck Moreland, Dave Kristmanson and Frank Steward, Doug Ruthven. My thanks and our thanks to them – Pioneers in Chemical Engineering in New Brunswick.
This Department now has 13 on the faculty, 50 to 60 post grads and 200 undergrads working with an annual research funding of between $2.5 million and $5 million.
Congratulations. You have come a long way.
To the Department of Chemical Engineering congratulations again on achieving 50.
I toast you: AD MULTOS ANNOS.
In my time as a post grad, the Chemical Engineering Department shared Memorial Hall with the Art Centre so I became friends there and took classes with Brigid Toole. Bruno and Molly Bobak and Lucy Jarvis became friends. We saw each other every day. When Paul Helmer was the pianist in residence he practised in the nearby observatory. I often joined him there to listen and sometimes in the evenings to watch the stars. Later Arlene and Joe Pach practised in the Hall and gave concerts there.
I took lessons there for the sensual clarinet and I sang with the madrigal singers. The Dramatic Society was also housed there and those exiting from trysts amongst the props passed my always open lab door.
And that was where I did my research….
Chemical Engineering was surrounded by music the dramatic and the visual arts and, I can admit it now, I revelled and spent time with all four. No wonder I took some time to complete my Master’s degree, not in music, not in painting, not in drama but in Chemical Engineering.
What a glorious existence that was and what an education.
There may be some of you who might believe that all of this may have been accomplished by one person. Not true. The journey requires friends and challengers. And I have mentioned only some of them here.
But I do want to mention one person, Catherine, my partner, lover and main challenger who has been my valiant support over many years. I thank her for her patience and love.
So this brings me – by the scenic route to my one thought. We live in a balance of chaos and structure, creating and building. Our humanity – our free will – makes you and me poor material to be parts of a machine. Amongst the infinite numbers of wonderful things we can choose to do is to use structures, building blocks to create new things. These may be complex molecules for industry or new schools for our children. The critical word here is “for”. Structures are “for” us; we are not “for” them.
My journey took its impetus from here. To those of you who are studying here – whether in engineering or in some other faculty – I wish you the same good fortune that the University of New Brunswick bequeathed to me.
Facts we can get from a book or off the Internet. Sharing thoughts is essentially social. I hope that you escape from your Departments to exchange ways of thinking with other students, ways of seeing with other artists, ways of hearing with musicians and ways of learning with other faculties.
A university is a wonderful place: it is a human zoo. May the animals within always be uncaged.
So, that is the “structure” bit for this evening. Now the fun bit… the chaos… as I try to take your questions and do them justice.
And as the Irish saying goes “if you are going to have chaos make sure it is well organised”.