MIT Department of Chemical Engineering Centennial Convocation (2/6)

Search transcript...


HP MEISSNER: Thank you, Clark. He understands my weaknesses. As Clark said, I first got here in the fall of 1925 as a freshman-- an incredibly long time ago it seems like to me. I will, therefore, talk about, I suppose, those five years or so, which follow the years that Hoyt Hottel has just talked about.

I came here from my hometown of West Hoboken, New Jersey-- a raucous suburb of New York City with a number of drinking establishments, I suppose-- and a town about which my then associates and I like to refer to as the Athens of America-- a slight exaggeration of the circumstances. It is certainly different from Boston. Boston seemed to me to be a backward community with, of course, none of its present vitality. It was a place, for example, where, when I first went to restaurants to eat I found that they were often called spas. Spas, indeed. Moxie was then, reasonably strong competitor of Coca-Cola. Remarkable.

The clam chowder was, in fact, made with milk, as it still is, instead of tomatoes. And a lot of people talked funny, like Ted Kennedy does today. I really thought that I had come to the end of the civilized world here. I thought that permafrost and Labrador started just a few miles north of Cambridge. The Institute, too, was a very different place.

And let me just tell you that, as far as I can remember, it had about 10% of its present floor area. It comprised the buildings of, let's say, one through five, as they exist at the present time, plus 7, plus 10, of course, plus Walker Memorial, plus Rogers across the river, and some wooden shacks out back. The corridors were thronged, of course, with students, relatively hairless, masculine students, dressed, if you please, in suits, coats, vests, ties, and so on. Very few women.

It seemed to me a rather monastic place-- a circumstance, perhaps, which we all regretted. At any rate, there was practically no landscaping. The space between-- and a good many of you will remember-- between Buildings Two and Four and Walker Memorial-- that space was covered with coarse gravel. You remember? As was the main court. Again, coarse gravel.

There was no art to speak of-- no Levinsons, no Calders, no Picassos. I've rather grown to like those creations with the passage of time, that is. And I think that it's an indication of the way an engineer can grow, that even that engineer, who I know particularly, felt strongly about those sculptures, who said that they made him think of the droppings of B-29s flying overhead, unfairly. He has changed his tune. He now finds them acceptable.

At any rate, it's an indication that the engineer is capable of aesthetic growth, it seems like to me. Now, I came to the Institute for the same reasons, I guess, that a good many of my classmates First of all, I liked to carry out chemical experiments at home, successfully, without blowing off of any fingers. I enjoyed, of course, machines as my classmates did. And of course, I was attracted by the enormous reputation of the Institute of this department. It was generally recognized that the chemical industry was on the verge of explosive growth. And that the Institute would have a large hand in providing the men to carry forward that development.

I think the man who was, of course, primarily responsible for that reputation was WK Lewis, a man who was in and out of the department headship. He didn't particularly like the job, but nevertheless he imposed, at that time it seemed to us, his standards on the department.

It seems to me that he had the four attributes that are critical to academic leadership. First of all, he had a reputation. He had a record of accomplishment. Second, he knew where he was going to go, where he wanted the profession to go. Third, he certainly wanted to-- let me see, I had a third one here somewhere. It must be the early hour that gets me down.

He certainly surrounded himself with an extremely capable staff. And fourthly, of course, he was a communicator as we all know. Incidentally, I rather stumbled over those. They make me think, however, of what we are looking for in our national leadership at the present time, God knows. They-- the first--


Let me tell you that as far as the first one was concerned-- and let me see if I can remember them in order-- but the first one was the issue of his record, a successful record. As far as we know, it was in collaboration with Arthur D Little that the unit ops concept were formulated. But it seems to me WK did something more. He draped those concepts with that sort of a mathematical formulation, which is critical to design, to plant design.

Second, on the issue of what he proposed to do, he recognized very clearly, as has been so nicely brought out in the previous talks, Professor Scriven and Professor Hottel, that our thermodynamics, of course, were inadequate at the time, at least for chemical engineering. We urgently needed thermodynamics. Again, he recognized, it seems to me, that the rate processes, especially, with respect to a mass transfer, had not gotten a proper amount of attention.

And finally, in his favorite field of industrial chemistry, he recognized that there was a new developing field on the verge of bursting onto the industrial scene, polymers and, again, colloid chemistry. He pioneered in all those fields. I still remember that whilst I was an undergraduate here, WK had instituted an experimental subject called chemical thermodynamics. And it was one that was attended that subject by a few select graduate students. A good many of the staff attended the noises that came out of the classrooms. Through those closed doors, I remember, as I went by, were fantastic. It was a disputatious, a period of time.

At any rate, so much for the second requirement. He knew where he wanted to go. Third, he attracted a surprisingly capable group of associates. I don't think an equal assemblage of stars has existed since in the profession. Let me very briefly go through maybe a few of them. I won't show you pictures. It takes too much time. And you probably remember them anyway. The first alphabetically doing it that way would be of course Ed Gilliland who was-- before I first met him, I was told that this was a country boy from the Middle West.

Well, let me tell you. When I got into my first technical session with Ed Gilliland, I was dazzled and astonished. In my long life, I have met a great many people, even Nobel laureates. I would say that Ed comes close to heading that list in terms of capacity. He had another quality, which I think perhaps is unusual in engineers. Although, I don't mean to run down my profession. But he had a quality of sweetness, which was a very nice thing to see. He was a nice guy in addition to everything else.

Second one, McAdams, he was a workaholic who certainly liked to verbalize his thinking. He talked all the time and recited his thoughts. And he liked to have his assistant standing by listening and when necessary making inputs. It was an arduous business, but I must hasten to say very educational.

Mac loved parties, and he loved to sing, accompanying himself, of course, on a guitar. I think he would have made a good stand in for one of the Peter, Paul, and Mary group. Except for the circumstance of their politics, he would have had no sympathy I think there.

The third person I think-- let me see if I've got this straight-- Sherwood I think would be next. That suave Canadian who-- that pioneer in mass transfer. He was a man of many talents, ranging from oil painting to, well, mountain climbing, if you can call that a talent. It may be madness.

He was remarkable, it seems to me because he kept the neatest desk that I think I have ever seen at the Institute. He had one other accomplishment, unusual in an academic I think. He always got things done ahead of time, remarkable, remarkable.

Next, Harold Weber. Harold Weber, jolly engineer, again, capable-- I think he was just as interested in electronics in those days as he was in chemical engineering. As a matter of fact, one of his early patents probably anticipates the transistor, if I have gotten the story straight from people who should know.

Whitman, a charmer, a born diplomat brought in by WK Lewis to run the department, was brought back. He'd been in the department for a while, went to industry, came back. He performed beautifully during the war, of course, and the war production board later in the State Department. He needed all his diplomacy at times to run his, what shall I say, his stable of academics who did not lightly take to too much direction.

At any rate, therefore, that was his next accomplishment. He could therefore manage to attract outstanding associates. Now then I suppose the next quality is his capacity to communicate. How am I doing? I'll stop very soon. His capacity to communicate, remarkable. He could put things very, very simply indeed. His classes were almost always, as you have heard, put on a discussion basis. He proceeded through a really, brilliantly formulated series of questions, which developed the points that he wanted to develop beautifully. All of us thought that he probably was a direct descendant of Socrates. He'd done it, so what?

Now then those are the qualities, it seems, that WK Lewis had. I'd like to illustrate his abilities to communicate his quick wittedness by a couple of anecdotes. There isn't time. Perhaps, I'll attempt only one. WK Lewis and I in the last, I think in the later decades of his life, often took walks together around the basin here after lunch at Walker, let's say. We would start out across the Longfellow Bridge, then down along the Esplanade and back over Harvard bridge, proceeding always at high speed. Doc talking practically all the time, usually haranguing me on some issue or another.

At any rate, I remember very well on one occasion that we were walking along behind the Emerson dorms. And as we came up there, I noticed that there was a group of girls standing there looking at us, as we proceeded at high speed, giggling and pointing. A young girl separated from that group and came up toward us. I think both Doc and I suspected that this might be an initiation stunt.

At any rate, she approached us and looked at Doc, ran along practically keeping up with us and said to him, do you think that sex and birth control are here to stay? He looked at her for a moment, interrupted his discussion of the phosphorous chloride as I remember it, which we were developing, and said without hesitation, that question has no relevance to a man of my age, and then proceeded to lope along, both of us leaving the girl standing behind looking after us.

Well, the stories of Doc are endless and great. He was a remarkable person. I should finish. I think it's great that you've all come. All of us had a great time here at the Institute. We enjoy it enormously. We love the place. We're glad that you've returned, thank you very much.


Apparently, I have forgotten one issue that I did want to bring up. And this is a characteristic of an aging mind. I have great difficulty in remembering things. I was going to tell you that Professor Hottel-- I hope he will forgive me, but he, of course, I guess I told you that he is in a class with Gilliland. But he is somewhat forgetful from time to time. And I hope he will forgive me if I mentioned the fact that characteristically, for example, he did on one occasion travel to a professional meeting in Providence by automobile, then returned after a very arduous day by train that evening leaving-- ah, well.


MODERATOR: We now have a break. In view of our tight schedule, I ask you to be back in your seats, if at all possible, in 20 minutes, which would be five minutes to 11. At this stage we shift gears and we go from the present to the future. Our next speaker is Jim Wei who will be giving us some perspectives on future directions in chemical engineering.

As you know, the faculty just returned from a two-day meeting that was held prior to the convocation in which we assessed the present status and future directions of chemical engineering. In addition, Jim Wei served as vice chairman of the National Academy of Sciences committee to look into the same topic and therefore is uniquely qualified to give us his perspective on where we'll be going, Jim?

JAMES WEI: Happy birthday.


I want to tell you that this is not only the centennial of the Department of Chemical Engineering founded in 1888. But in 1908, six people founded the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, including our own Arthur D Little and William H Walker. So this is also the 80th birthday of AICHE. So this is a double birthday. And I have the unique privilege of being head of the department and president of the AICHE at the same time. So let's say happy birthday.


I also want to say that the registration shows that we have one member of the class of 1923 here, Ragnar Naess. But there is a late registration also here today, Dunbar Shanklin, who likes very much to get together with him. I suspect they might not have met for 55 years. Ragnar, where are you? Would you raise your arm? Ragnar is here. Where is Dunbar?


I'm sure you'll have a great reunion. Now, there are a number of talks before about great achievements that we have achieved in the last century. But we also heard from the provost about crises coming and storm clouds on the horizon. Now, Paul Gray appointed a commission to study productivity and competition. And we started looking into the question about how the various industries are doing.

One, the question is why America is no longer making things that the rest of the world wants to buy? Now, we made the study, and we found that the good news is that the chemical industry is one of the two most successful American industries today. They are maintaining a healthy world competition and earning a surplus of $11 billion export over import this year.

Now, I am tempted to say that this is because the chemical industry is managed by chemical engineers. They have superior brains, excellent education, and good looks. But we do believe that the chemical industry has what we call an innovative culture at the top management of these industries. They are usually chemical engineers who love to make things well. And they're committed to the long-range view and cutting edge technologies as the competitive tool in the world.

Now, we educators have to try to play a role in maintaining this innovative culture. Four years ago, a group of chemical engineers got together to begin a study on chemical engineering frontiers, research needs and opportunities, under the sponsorship of the National Academies. I've been talking to the students for quite some time now about the frontiers, what it is, how to get there and how to stay on top. So the student chapter of the AIChE put together a T-shirt that looks like this. And it says MIT AIChE frontiers in chemical engineering with logos on biotechnology, microelectronics, computer-aided engineering and so forth.

I heard there are still a few left in the stock if you feel you cannot leave Cambridge without one. You should talk to the student chapter AIChE leaders and see what they can do for you. Now, this committee has produced a report last year, and I brought you a copy of the report to show you. And it is very handsomely done. And it is required reading for all chemical engineers who seriously want to know where the future is.

We have also produced an abridged version written in simpler language with pretty pictures. They are intended for high school students and for your boss or congressman who-- and be sure they get a hole of a copy and present it to them and tell them there is a lot of future there.

Now, the good news in these reports tells you that there are many splendid opportunities for chemical engineers in the next century. There are many of them are due to new science developments, which open up technologies that have unprecedented power to improve our lives in areas such as biotechnology, microelectronics, and advanced materials. We, the chemical engineers, have the concepts and tools to help develop these industries.

Second, many of the traditional industries, especially in energy and basic materials, are affected by the globalization of manufacturing and technology and threatens to move offshore. But there are many opportunities for us chemical engineers to use good science and good engineering to make them low-cost producers and keep them here. And that's another opportunity.

The third one is that the public has much greater expectations now from us on community, health and safety, and on environmental protection. And we should show the world that we are the solutions and not the problems. And we should declare ourselves to be the cradle and grave guardians of toxic substances from the generation, transportation, use and final disposal.

These are the good news. And how do we get there from here? Do we already possess all the tools and concepts we need? As [? Carl ?] mentioned that for the last two days, we have invited 35 leading educators and researchers for a symposium on the intellectual foundations of chemical engineering. We want to know, how do we get there from here?

Let me tell you something of the general consensus that we have arrived-- that we already have many of the required concepts and tools in our curriculum to equip our students to be effective. We are good at working at things at the molecular scale as some of the speakers, last two days, told us that we are now moving from an era of manufacturing of electronic things, of mechanical steps, such as soldering wires, blowing glass, to an era of molecular or chemical fabrication steps like chemical vapor deposition.

This is also happening in the ceramic and polymer area. And we feel that we have unique contributions because chemical manufacturing is becoming important. However, we really don't have all the tools we need yet to learn these new industries. To get into biotechnology, we need to learn biochemistry and genetics. And we need to learn about polymer chemistry, solid-state chemistry. Many, many subjects that are not in our curriculum. And we need to forge multidisciplinary teams because we cannot do it alone. We need partners, and we have to learn how to work with partners.

And we also need to develop a lot of new engineering sciences and techniques, computer programs, analytical procedures, models, to solve these very difficult and complex problems. We are very good at solving problems involving small, simple molecules in the past. Now, we gotta deal with complex, difficult, how to characterize substances. And we have to do that well.

There is a lot of implications from these conferences. And there is a big implication on the educational side that I would like to talk about for a moment. We need to broaden the mind of our undergraduate students. They are used to studying the science subjects, the engineering science subjects. We need to help them to integrate all these together into a set of courses, which should start off from considerations in the marketplace.

Who needs these products? What kind of specifications they should have? And how do we design them? How do we put a process together? And what are the downstream consequences of these processes? Would it pollute the air in the [? air? ?] And these are a set of innovative courses, which we call the ICE courses or the Integrated Chemical Engineering courses. They'll be described next by Professors Evans, Sawin, and Merrill.

Now, there is increasing demand that we put more and more material in our curriculum. People who say, how can you turn out a chemical engineer who doesn't know quantum mechanics? What about molecular biology and biochemistry? Surely, they must know at least two computer languages. And to be effective in a global economy, how can they leave without learning foreign languages and foreign cultures? And surely, they cannot leave without understanding environmental and social concerns. And of course, what about ethics?

Very important topics all of them but you know that an MIT education is like drinking from a fire hose. You have all heard that when you came as a freshman. And now is this time to increase the pressure on a fire hose? Now, there are a number of things that we are wrestling with. And we keep on finding ourselves coming back and back to the question. How do you put more material in and still get through in four years? And the students still should have time to watch the Red Sox game to drink beer in the dormitories and to make friendships and grow as individuals.

I think that it is time for us to put aside the pretense that we can really turn our professional engineer in a four year of college. The truth is that we have never done that. Engineering education has always been a partnership between universities and industry. The universities teach them the fundamentals. And the graduates enter the industry to work.

They work as apprentices under the watchful eyes of senior engineers who can teach them the ropes and watch over for their mistakes for a number of years before they can really do independent engineering work. This is really no different from medical education where the internship and residency are done in hospitals and clinics. And we have our students doing them in the industries. Of course, this is the concept of the practice school, which John Deutch, I mentioned, is forming a model of education in MIT.

Now, it is the time for us to recognize that the four year bachelor's degree is a general preparation for a number of exciting careers. What do I mean? If you take a four year bachelor's degree, it gives you a very good general preparation. You can go to work for industry and get on a job training to do a number of very, very exciting things. And for many of the less technically demanding careers, they would also prepare them for professional schools of business and medicine and law.

But if you want to do a technically very demanding function such as engineering design and development, it's very important to take advanced courses and then get a master's degree because a bachelor's degree just won't be enough for the more demanding subjects. And to be effective in the new high-tech areas, you will need courses in the new sciences in the biochemistry, and the polymers, and the microelectronics. And of course, we know to do teaching and research we need a doctor's degree.

Now, this is all very well you say. What about accreditation? What would the president of AIChE say? And what would ABET say? How the answer may well be that we should design a four year bachelor's degree to be a more broadening experience. The students who started four years would have a good general preparation. But we really ought to, what I would call, practice truth and labeling. We should shift the focus of accreditation to the master's degree.

Now, we are beginning to really put enough subjects together and experience together to train a professional student for the future. Doc Lewis used to tell us the chemical engineer can do anything. And we certainly agree with him. With him staring down at us, we had to agree. And of course, we know that he was right. Not only we are all born with superior intelligence and good looks. We also have a splendid education.

And the most important thing is that we do our homework, and we keep on doing our homework until we graduate from college. We keep up with the world. We keep educating ourselves, and we keep preparing ourselves for the future. I want to say that my fellow chemical engineers, the next century will be even more glorious than the first century. Thank you.