Converting Cubic Centimeters as Life Lurch

One of the largest of my life challenges was converting cubic meters to cubic centimeters.

In 1973 I was prospecting in the Stikine Range of northern British Columbia as a blaster and geological assistant. My colleagues were college graduates in geology and they out-ranked me. I had no college education – I had picked up my rudimentary geology and geophysics knowledge on the job since 1969. My boss was Arne B~, a fine geologist and Geological Engineer. During previous prospecting seasons, he had advised me to go to school and get a degree to advance my career in mineral exploration. He suggested that I go to the British Columbia Institute of Technology, earn a two year Mining Technology Certificate and with that transfer to the Colorado School of Mines at Golden, CO, for a degree in Geological Engineering. That is the route he had taken.

Great idea. But I had none of the pre-requisite education in Math or Science.

My secondary school education was at Southall Grammar School in West London, UK. I was kicked out of science at age 12 for being a prankster in the laboratories. And I had not be able to advance beyond 4th Year math (age 14) because I was hopeless at it. In the late 1950’s and 1960’s school leaving age was 15. I hung on at school with the bare minimum of four qualifying passes in UK GCE “O” Levels – English Language, English Literature, History and Geography. For my last two school years I focused on History, Geography and Economics and along the way I picked up “O” Level Economics and Geology. I sat “A” Levels in Economic and Geography, earning terrible grades in both but still was offered a place at Leicester University to study Economics. I turned that offer down – I hated the graphs and simple equations of micro-economics. But, I have had a lifelong appreciation of the concept of Diminishing Marginal Utility…

I left school at age 17 in 1966 to work in the new world of computers. And my employers sent me to Harrow College of Arts and Science to learn some computer stuff. So I was OK with Binary and Hexadecimal notation and the concepts of calling sub-routines from main programs.

So in 1973 I knew a lot of nice words and what 01001001 meant. But I had virtually no useful Math and Science background. All I could remember of Math at age 25 was Pythagoras’ Theorem, A plus B = C (which of course I had wrong: it is A squared + B squared = C squared) and much of the Quadratic Formula because I had learned it to the tune of “Three Blind Mice”. I had trigonometry pretty well figured out: Some Octopuses Have Children And Husbands To Order About: Sine=Opposite over Hypotenuse, etc… Who are you to laugh? How did you learn these life-sustaining factoids?

With a pretty but largely useless academic background, I applied to Albert “Moose” Manifold, Head of the Mining Technology program at the British Columbia Institute of Technology at Burnaby, BC. He accepted me into the Program as something termed a “mature student”, on the understanding that I would learn the necessary math and science.

It was with excitement that I registered for classes and bought the stack of required text books. The first lecture was on a Friday. It was Physical Chemistry – a review session in basic Stoichiometry, physical constants, scientific and exponential notation, basic mathematics, unit conversions and the like. It was all meaningless. The homework, to be done by Monday, was a dozen questions from Chapter One of the text book.

I married Barbara that weekend.

*The first question was something like: How many cubic centimeters in 0.87 cubic meters?.

I could not do it. I spent hours trying to understand manipulations with powers of ten. I looked at the rest of the book, and then the stack of books for the first term of the two year program which was gong to be half of the four years that I would have to study to become just like the youngsters who out-ranked me on prospecting projects. That simple question was a huge barrier to the path that I could visualize and dream. But I could not surmount the obstacle- I could not even do the first question from the first chapter of the first course of the first term. It was such a daunting prospect that I that I cried. It felt hopeless.

My beautiful new wife helped me over the despair with loving support, and no doubt we had healing Sunday afternoon sex.

Likely that did the trick because I then just got on with the obstacle course – I slalomed my way through the text books and homework and self-doubts and, with Barbara’s unflagging help, I ended up at or near the top of my class that year.

I then transferred, halfway through the Mining Technology Program, to enter first Year Engineering at the University of British Columbia to study Geological Engineering. After four more years at UBC, I had painfully made my way through all the required Math and Science, and even more besides, since I specialized in math-saturated graduate level courses in Hydraulics, Coastal Engineering, Oceanography and Ocean Engineering. I did well enough at UBC to be awarded prizes, including the first Aro A. Aho Medal for Academic Excellence in Geological Engineering.

So – looking back, the lurch from practical prospecting to my geological engineering career started when I finally figured out the simple cubic centimeter problem.

This tale has poignant significance to me right now. On November 19 2008 I shall be lecturing at both BCIT and to the UBC Geological Engineers/Vancouver Geotechnical Society as a part of my lecture series as the Richard H. Jahns Distinguished Lecturer in Engineering Geology.

*(The answer is 870,000 cubic centimeters).

About Ed Medley

Ed Medley has been on a random walk for over 40 years. Many scribbles and snapshots at this site are from his vagabond transits; others are from his 40 years of international experience in geological and geotechnical engineering, academia, and mineral exploration prospecting.
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