"Come with me now," the soldier commanded.
But Archimedes, the man who had once said, "Give me a lever and a place to stand and I'll move the earth," would not be moved. "You'll have to wait until I solve this equation," he said as he continued his work.
"No, you must come now!" the soldier insisted.
Archimedes, not one to be swayed by the wishes of a mere layperson, answered with a wave of his hand "You'll have to wait, and don't disturb my circles while you're waiting," he said.
The soldier looked down at the sand and, needless to say, couldn't understand what the heck the great man was doing. And because he couldn't understand, he became annoyed, drew his sword and cut Archimedes into several large, bloody chunks. Really.
This is the first recorded incident of a disaster caused by an engineer's need to be overly technical with his audience.
I was thinking about this the other day as my mind wandered off during a lecture I was attending. We sat in long rows of folding chairs, like mourners at a funeral. The speaker slouched in front of the lecture hall and talked, not to us, but to the deck of his overhead projector, which sat atop a six-foot-long, skirted table and purred hypnotic white noise. Foot-high numbers appeared on a large screen behind the speaker and formed themselves into a blizzard of equations as the speaker droned on. We became numb.
I looked around and saw heads bobbing in spastic rhythm as the air thickened with carbon dioxide and Sleep entered the room like a late-arriving registrant. The speaker never looked up, never noticed any of this. He just stared at his equations on the overhead projector deck and bounced his voice around the room like a partly deflated basketball.
Where's the passion? I wondered.
Take Archimedes, for instance. Now there was a passionate engineer. He was laying in his bath tub one day when he realized what made boats float. He jumped from the tub, shouted "Eureka!" and then ran naked through the streets of Syracuse, telling anyone who would listen to a wet, naked man about Archimedes Principle. I wonder if they understood him.
There's a guy on Long Island who installs under-floor radiant heating systems in the homes of people who have lots of money, but are not necessarily eager to spend it on things that will be felt, but never seen. A couple of years ago, I stood with this guy on the second-floor balcony of a house that was bigger than a Russian war memorial.
"How'd you talk the owner into the more-expensive heating system?" I asked.
"I told him that if he installed anything other than under-floor radiant heat in this place, he'd be able to hang a wind chime over there and have it ring even with all the windows closed." He pointed to the top of a sixteen-foot-high wall of glass.
I understood immediately. The convective currents from any type of heating system other than radiant would have rung that wind chime. I can hear it in my imagination right now. Can you?
Oh, what a beautiful way that was to describe one of the key benefits of under-floor radiant heat to a layperson! All the textbooks in the world couldn't have made a better impression on the client. This guy had painted a word picture that was worth a thousand formulas.
That sort of communication that can come only from a passion for real engineering.
How come we don't talk like that more often?
One time, I was speaking to a homebuilder about the same subject - under-floor radiant heat. I was having a tough time explaining that this type of heating is more about the heat loss from the body than it is about the heat loss from the building. The builder's eyes glazed over. He looked at me the way the Roman soldier must have looked at Archimedes. Made me nervous.
"Hold that expression," I said, jumping up. "It's perfect! Let's take a ride." We got in my car and drove to the local supermarket.
"What's the deal?" he asked.
"I'm going to show you some real science," I explained, "something you can wrap your mind around." I grabbed a digital thermometer from my briefcase and we walked through the automatic door.
We headed up the Cereal aisle first, and I had him take the air temperature with the thermometer. "Sixty-eight degrees," he said. Then we strolled down Coffee-And-Juice. "Sixty-eight," he repeated. Soda-And-Beer, and again it was "Sixty-eight." He sounded a bit bored. "What's your point, Dan?" he asked. I smiled and held up my hand as we turned into the frozen food aisle.
"You feel the chill?" I asked.
"Yeah," he said. "What's your point? I'm chilly because we're in the frozen food aisle."
"Look at the temperature?" I said, all excited and crazy with passion about the Wonderful World of Delta T we'd just entered.
His eyes went wide. "It's sixty-eight degrees in this aisle," he said.
"Yes!" I laughed and jumped up and down. An elderly woman in a black dress and a hair net saw us and pushed her cart a bit faster down Paper Goods.
"How come I feel so cold?" he asked, wonderfully confused.
"Because the objects around you are colder than you are," I exclaimed. "Anytime there's a wide discrepancy between the air temperature and the temperature of the surfaces surrounding you, you're going to feel uncomfortable. That's what under-floor radiant heating combats. If we make the surfaces around us the same temperature as the outside of our clothed bodies - that's about 85 degrees, by the way - we'll be gloriously comfortable. You know why?"
"Why?" he asked, still staring at the thermometer.
"Because we won't radiate as much heat off of our bodies. You're cold now because you're standing near the freezers, even though the air temperature is sixty-eight degrees. Your body is throwing BTUs like fistfuls of confetti at those freezer cases."
The store manager and a burly grocery kid came over to investigate. The old woman peered from around the end of a club soda display. "There they are," she said.
"Want me to tell you all about Henry's Law, ma'am?" I shouted at her. "It's right there in the club soda! All we have to do is shake up a few bottles and pop the caps." She scooted away.
Ah, word pictures! How come we don't paint more of them when we're talking to clients? They're positively magical.
One time I watched an engineer try to explain the benefits of a multiple-boiler system to a client. The client couldn't see why he should buy four boilers when one would do. Finally, and more out of frustration than anything else, the engineer blurted out, "Look, do you wear all the clothes in your closet on the same day?"
"No," the guy answered, stopped in his tracks by the ridiculous question.
"Well," the engineer continued, "Having a single boiler firing at the same rate all the time is like wearing your fall, winter and spring wardrobes at the same time. Just because you have all those clothes, doesn't mean you have to use them everyday, does it?"
"No," the guy admitted.
"Well," the engineer continued, realizing he was on a roll. "With a multiple-boiler system, you can wear one of your boilers on a mild day, two on a chilly day and all four when it gets really cold outside. That way, you'll always be dressed for the weather. You get it?"
The client's eyes lit up. Believe me, no formula, no technical article, no scholarly lecture could have done the job as well as that very visual analogy.
I recently asked 150 people at a seminar I was conducting what AFUE stood for. Since they were all heating professionals, I figured some might know because they use this term all the time with their clients.
Exactly five out of the 150 people in the room knew that AFUE stood for Annual Fuel Utilization Efficiency. That's about average for a group this size (I ask this question a lot).
"Okay," I said to them, "I'm a layman and you're trying to sell me a new boiler. I just brought up AFUE. Tell me what it means."
And then a beautiful thing happened. One of the five said, "AFUE is a lot like Miles Per Gallon with a car, right?"
I could have hugged him for coming up with these words, words that any regular human being could understand. That's communication.
You ever think about this: Centrifugal pumps are a lot like the motors on Ferris wheels. They don't do any lifting, they just turn that big wheel of water. The pump has to be big enough to overcome the friction the "wheel" creates as it spins, that's all.
Can you see the Ferris wheel in your mind's eye?
Convective air currents also move like a Ferris wheels. That's why you can't block the radiators with furniture when you have a convective system. But you can ring a wind chime.
Make invisible things visible for your clients and watch what happens.
Air-related noises in pipes? Why, they sound like someone's shooting BBs through the radiators, don't they? Sometimes, they can sound like hailstones hitting a storm window. That's why every good hydronic system (hot or chilled) needs an air separator.
What's an air separator? It's nothing more than an air-bubble strainer. It snatches those tiny bubbles out of the flow of water like a shortstop shagging grounders. It catches those troublesome BBs before they can ping around upstairs and annoy the people.
Can you see it?
What's a BTU? The best description I ever heard (watched, actually) was when this old-time heating man lit a match and let it burn down to the tips of his calloused fingers. The customer watched, transfixed.
"That's a single BTU," the old-timer said slowly as the match burned itself out on his tough skin. "When your burner lights, it's going to be like 7,500 books of matches all flaring up at the same time."
I tell you, it was pure magic! The old-timer went on to explain to the building owner why it's more efficient to keep the burner running for as long as possible after it's been lit. "You don't want that sudden flare-up of matchbooks happening all the time. It's not good for the equipment. It's better if we get a steady, controlled burn. I'll size the equipment so you'll have just enough heat, no more and no less than you need to be comfortable. It'll be like cruise control on a car." The client smiled and nodded.
Piping is the road upon which heat travels. Have you ever thought about it that way? That's why pipes, like highways, come in different sizes.
Zone valves are like drawbridges that open and close, starting and stopping the flow of traffic. Balancing valves are like traffic cops, directing things out there on the road, making sure the heat goes where it's supposed to go.
Indirect domestic hot water heaters? To me, they're like Thermos bottles. You heat the water over here and store it over there so it stays hot for a long time.
Clients buy intangibles - what the thing does, not what it is. I've learned it pays to make a real effort to verbally connect engineering theory and practice to the concepts and images clients already understand. They sit up and listen very closely when you do.
I thought about this as I listened to that passionless speaker continue his autopsy of the subject at hand. The man next to me snorted, waking himself with a start. "Sorry," he mumbled to no one in particular. A few minutes later, his head was bobbing again. The speaker never looked up, and it occurred to me that to know something is not nearly good enough. You also have to be able to tell it well if you want people to hear what you're saying.