As I walked the exhibit area and sampled some of the papers and presentations at the 2012 American Physical Society conference this week in Boston, the supposed love/hate relationship that physicists and scientists sometimes have versus engineers was nowhere to be seen.
Instead, the overall message I came away with was that not only do we need each other, we greatly benefit from each other's work: physics advances the envelope's edge, engineering reinforces it and pushes it further ahead, and the process repeats itself in a beneficial “do-while” loop.
This meeting of 7000+ physicists is not for those who are looking for the elusive Higgs boson, lost hadrons, or superluminal neutrinos, or are content with endless models and simulations. Instead, the focus is on physics with a practical slant, with much of it ultimately centered on materials science. [The late, sorely missed Jim Williams once posed the question: “what has quantum physics actually given us, besides the tunnel diode?”]
Sure, there were lasers doing their magic, and Raman spectroscopy in abundance, but there were also systems and instrumentation for high and low extremes of pressure, temperature, magnetic fields, voltage, and current (near-perfect vacuums and cryogenics were especially popular). We're talking real hardware here—meaning plumbing, valves, pumps, filters, seals, sputtering and deposition systems—not at all what we EEs usually call out as “hardware.” Many of the products were from small, highly specialized vendors who have the esoteric knowledge and expertise to identify and serve a tightly-defined niche and need.
For those who think the printed word and books are history, it's just not so. There were large displays by leading publishers of physics books ranging from somewhat general to highly specialized; while some of the latter sell no more than a few hundred copies a year, it's good to see that this knowledge is being captured and recorded so others can benefit and leverage it.
Not all the books were intense; among the ones I looked through were:
•Sand and Silicon: Science that changed the world , Denis McWhan (Oxford University Press)
•Soap, Science, and Flat-Screen TVs: A history of liquid crystals , David Dunmur and Tim Sluckin (Oxford University Press)
•From Artefacts to Atoms: The BIPM [ International Bureau of Weights and Measures] and the search for the ultimate measurement standard , Terry Quinn (Oxford University Press)
•The Ultimate Book of Saturday Science: The very best backyard science experiments you can do yourself , Neil A. Downie (Princeton University Press)
•X and the City: Modeling aspects of urban life , John A. Adam (Princeton University Press)
Electronic circuits and systems were there, of course, to control, cool, heat, drive, and measure. Forget about your low-voltage, power-miser, battery-sipping circuits and systems. Trek, Inc. showed high-voltage power amplifiers pushing tens of kilovolts; and AR had broadband amplifiers from DC to 65 GHz, up to 100 kW.
On the instrumentationside, Keithley Instruments had source-measure units pulsing up to 2 kW/±50 A as well as curve tracers for device characterization; and in the “look Ma, no hands” category, and there was a non-contact, electrostatic voltmeter which can take readings to up ±20 kV, also from Trek, Inc.
I find that going to trade shows and conferences that are not directly associated with the “electronics” industry helps me realize how our efforts are aided by others, while also furthering their work. You can get so deep into your own technical niche that you can't see or think outside the proverbial box for ideas, appreciation, applications, and solutions.
Are there any technical but non-EE events that made an impression on you?
A few images from the event:
Cutaway of a 1980's-era multiple flask-in-flask Dewar flask,
to keep your liquids really cold (Cryofab)
High-pressure anvil: make your own diamonds,
as needed (Easylab)
Curve tracer (Keithley)
Make your own highly purified liquid helium (Cyromech)
High-vacuum chamber (Nor-Cal)
High-vacuum chamber (Bruker)
Deposition and sputtering (PVD Products)
Micropositioning with precision and repeatability (Attocube)
Deposition and sputtering
Cryopump (Oxford Instruments)