Business & Technology Nexus

Dave Stephens on technology and business trends

Dr. Prausnitz’s Lifetime Achievement Award

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Many of you may be surprised to learn I am an unabashedly proud Chemical Engineer, even though I found my calling building business software. In fact, while obtaining my B.S. at UC Berkeley I was priviledged to do undergraduate honors research for the distinguished Dr. Prausnitz. And although I turned down Dr. Prausnitz’s request to go to graduate school and “become something” I always look back upon my work with him with fondness and gratitude.

His office (for over 50 years now) is on the 3rd floor of Gilman on Berkeley’s campus. Across from it you’ll find a plaque – and not just any ordinary plaque – but a plaque saying “in 1941 in this laboratory plutonium was discovered.” That sets the tone of the place – here is where history is made. Next to his office door is a now 20-years-out-of-date Academic Family Tree, highlighting all of the fabulous researchers that studied under Dr. Prausnitz and went on to contribute to the field.

Well, last night I had the absolute pleasure of returning to Berkeley to attend an AIChE Northern California Section dinner honoring Dr. Prausnitz with a Lifetime Achievement Award. Naturally, he hadn’t changed at all and engaged me with the same mix of charm and wit that I had remembered from nearly 15 years ago.

Dr. Prausnitz has many honorary doctorate degrees (to complement his actual phD from Princeton) and has received many awards and commendations over his life’s work. Given that he has spent over 50 years as a Professor at UC Berkeley, that’s saying something. In 2005, for example, he was awarded the National Medal of Science at the White House. In my eyes, he is just one of those legendary figures that has sought truth and meaning over the years – and as such I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see him again, say thanks & congratulate him on all his achievements.

To my delight, Dr. Prausnitz gave a lecture as the dinner was concluding. He spoke not on technical matters, but instead about the role of Chemical Engineering and Chemical Engineers in the “postmodern world”. This was a philosophical talk and also a call to action. And to me, the concepts and concerns Dr. Prausnitz outlined persist well beyond the narrow confines of Chemical Engineering and extend instead to how Scientists and Engineers, in the broadest sense, have yet to adapt to the concerns of postmodern society.

I won’t attempt to recreate Dr. Prausnitz’s lecture because I would fail completely. But I think I can convey a portion of his message by reminding regular readers of one person’s reaction to my decision to launch my open source procurement start-up Coupa. The dissenter wrote: “that’s all we need is another engineer building software for us.” The point in the message is paradoxical but not uncommon. The thought behind it is that engineers “don’t listen”, engineers “don’t get us”, and therefore an engineer’s effort is just as likely to be a big waste of time than anything truly of value.

Of course, engineers and scientists bristle at this. In our typical, often condescending way, we respond along the lines of: “If not for us engineers, you would be eating a lot of raw food, living in a grass hut, and just forget about things like cars and planes, your iPod, the internet, etc.” Just trust us, we say, and we will make life better for everyone. Yet this knee-jerk response does not create a dialogue, does not help bridge the gap between those who use technology and innovation and those that seek to produce it, and, as Dr. Prausnitz said “destroys credibility.”

The truth is too much of society views engineers and scientists with deep suspicion. And we fuel that suspicion by providing plenty of examples where we have been either unable or unwilling to deal with context, differences in perception, underlying complexity, and especially the desperate need for human individuality. We come across at best as “dull and narrow-minded plodders” and at worst “dangerous tinkerers seeking to destroy life’s delicate balance.”

Of course, Dr. Prausnitz was less aggressive in his tone and his examples. He was able to draw out societal biases through looking at 2 similar slogans separated by 40 years. The former, used by DuPont, said “Better Living Through Chemistry.” What do you think? Would that work today? He’d argue, and I’d agree, absolutely not. Instead, people would react by linking Chemistry to accidents, to technology gone awry, to Bovine Growth Serum, etc. The new, postmodern equivalent is “Value Beyond Chemistry.” The message here is simple – we have the scientists firmly in check and while their work in necessary, we are making sure it is used within a social and societal framework of values that no engineer or scientist could ever understand. Us non-scientists and non-engineers are in charge, don’t worry!

Dr. Prausnitz issued a call to action on how to bridge the gap. He argued postmodernism had its very, very good points – such as it’s ability to free society from soul-crushing efficiency – firmly rejecting concepts like modular apartment buildings where every unit is exactly the same. He argued for more linking between the humanities and the sciences. And certainly I agree. Without being able to articulate the reasons for achieving scientific progress in a postmodern framework, true societal progress is difficult to achieve. Engineers and scientists should view theselves as apart of instead apart from society. And the converse should also hold true.

It was an inspiring talk – and well worth the drive to Berkeley. I may give you a few of Dr. Prausnitz’s more colorful examples in posts to come. But needless to say, just as always, I listened to him and grew smarter. I listened and 15 years melted away. Well done Professor Prausnitz, well done.

Now I’m certain most of you will never have heard of Dr. Prausnitz, so I want to end this piece with an anecdote he began his lecture with. Dr. Prausnitz said that he now knew there were 5 stages you go through when joining faculty researchers at a University setting. And these are:

1) Who’s Prausnitz?

2) Let’s give Prausnitz a chance

3) Prausnitz is one of us

4) Where can we get another Prausnitz?

5) Who’s Prausnitz?

How true. And not just of University Professors, Dr. Prausnitz. True for almost all of us.

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Written by Dave Stephens

09/20/06 6:26 AM at 6:26 am

Posted in Opinion

One Response

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  1. Great post, Dave! I especially loved it due to my own chem e background :-)

    And, of course, virtually all chem e grad students worldwide have known Prof Pausnitz at least as the textbook author for a core course (he has a couple of very widely used textbooks)…

    VipinChawla

    09/20/06 10:43 PM at 10:43 pm


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