engineering, science, STEM, Technology


Good morning,
I had a somewhat less than pleasant encounter with a teacher who taught one of those STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects at a local school in London. Upon learning that I worked in engineering, perhaps to sound agreeable, she interjected with an air of pride, not dissimilar to the kind of pride displayed by those people who are (worryingly) proud of paying taxes or not littering, “I always encourage my students to go into STEM related professions. At this, I snapped if a little bit. My immediate reaction was “Um. Why would you do that? These kids can and deserve to have a bright future. Why would you actively subject young fledgling hopeful things to a life of dispiritingly, perpetually oversupplied, anxiety-infested market?” Startled and stunned like a deer caught in the headlights, and unable to formulate a quick enough response to these verbal convulsions of temporary insanity, she had no choice but to listen to my ensuing rant. Repeatedly.

In conjunction with a few other minor indiscretions, it turned out a few minutes later that she had had enough of this ‘nonsense’ (or overwhelming enlightenment, depending on point of view); she stood up and left the table.

We often hear about shortages in the science and engineering workforce both in the UK and the US (e.g. here, and here), but I  I wonder if this is generally true at all and maybe the initiative is more about wage suppression; certainly I’ve not personally seen any evidence of skills shortage or hiring difficulties in my line of work. I won’t go into the details as there are articles available online that express this concern in a far more articulate manner (this and this), but from what I’ve read so far, at least this much is true – engineering graduates are more likely to be unemployed after graduation than average. Let that one sink in and if you’re thinking about having kids – first, don’t. If it’s too late for you and you’re already having one or have had one, make sure you keep them out of harm’s way – the STEM way.

Have a good Friday.


PPFF #139: Batteries

Good morning,

The future (read: iPhone 7) was announced last week; Wednesday 6pm (BST) to be more precise. I remember the world being one way on Tuesday but Wednesday evening, everything changed. Again. To the extent that we would no longer recognise either the piece of junk we used to call iPhone 6s or clammy hands that used to hold such an abominable bundle of outdated technology (headphone jack socket and what have you). With its impact on par with Brexit.

You might be wondering ‘where is this going?’ or thinking ‘what a weird introduction’. Indeed, this is no way to start a fact. But there is a fact at the end. It’s almost boring; the reason for much ado, to embellish the boring fact.

Some weeks ago, I noticed a tiny little crack in my mobile phone (an iPhone in fact), on the edge where the screen meets the metal enclosure, maybe half a millimetre wide (barely noticeable but, needless to say, noticeable, which is how I noticed it). I could see the screen backlight shining through it. At first, I didn’t think much of it; I’ve had the phone for a while and maybe it happened when I dropped it somewhere. A few days later, however, the crack seemed to have grown in size. A little alarmed but I thought I’d accidentally pried it while handling it in and out of my pocket. Then one night while I was using it, the bottom corners of the phone screen popped open. It was only then it dawned on me (yes I could be slow) – the fabled swollen battery problem.

So I called Apple Customer Services, as one would in such a circumstance. The customer services rep who answered my call, though polite, went through the usual customer services nonsense and said, ‘ok, I have good news and bad news’. She told me what the bad news was but I couldn’t hear her very well. She continued, essentially saying ‘…the good news is, you can buy the same phone (iPhone 5) for only £199’. At this point I was really curious about the bad news that I had failed to register just moments ago, and started questioning in my mind her understanding of the rather basic words ‘good’ and ‘bad’; was she an existentialist who had simply transcended the arbitrary nature of common distinction between good and bad? Is she practising the concepts she adopted from Nietzsche’s ‘Beyond Good and Evil’? This and many other questions went unanswered.

Not that it was her fault (probably just following their procedure), I raised hell, as a disappointed loyal customer would, claiming it was no longer a consumer query but a public health and safety concern. After a few minutes of exchange of our clashing views, I was passed on to the supervisor who told me that battery is ultimately a consumable item and it is how batteries work. So I wondered, ‘how DO batteries work?

First conceived by Gilbert Lewis in 1912, batteries are basically chemical reactions waiting to happen in tiny containers. Once the positive and negative ends are connected through a circuit (e.g. a phone), the reactions start; positively charged ions and negatively charged electrons; the ions move through the battery while the electrons go through the circuit to which the battery’s connected, providing electrical energy.

The batteries have come a long way since then. The type of battery currently most widely used in consumer products was invented at the University of Oxford in the 1970s, the research of which was published in 1980. Soon after, Sony (you know the company that revolutionised the world with Walkman for those of you old enough to know what that is. Not unlike Apple), developed it into a commercial technology and manufactured the first lithium ion batteries in the early 1990s

Back to iPhone 7. Why did I even mention it? I guess, before you rush to get your hands on ‘the future’ that would cost £599-£999, I just wanted to highlight that electronic goods especially the ones with non-removable batteries are consumables designed to last only a few years.

Have a sensible Friday