Today was the fourth time I’ve been to Cambridge (bringing my total by the end of this year to six, as I mentioned here), this time for another CareersMCS event about engineering and computer science. Like both the other conferences organised by the same people, I ended up leaving somewhat inspired, and wanting to do all the courses they talked about. As one of my friends put it, now I don’t want to be a banker/medic/programmer/whatever – I just want to be a student all my life. As Chef from South Park put it, “there’s a time and place for everything … and it’s called college”.
The day started at silly o’clock when I woke up, arriving in time for a 9:45 start. After an intro (at the beginning of which all parents in the hall were, as always, assertively invited to leave – presumably to allow us to feel free to ask questions) we launched straight into Aerospace Engineering.
I feel I took away something new, interesting and possibly useful from each of the nine lectures today. Aerospace was all about fluid dynamics and how aerofoils generate lift, footballs spin and paper aeroplanes do ‘loop-de-loops’. The speaker quickly dismissed the higly yesteryear longer path theory (and to think I was misled by the Science Museum!) and moved onto explaining exactly what Cambridge professors think is going on. It’s all about bends in streamlines creating pressure gradients and subsequent forces. Theories involving Bernoulli’s speed-pressure relationships are also apparently flawed. Fluid dynamics are one of the Physics topics tragically lost in the teaching of AS Physics (*very* casually touched upon by KPZ when we were calculating electron drift speeds in wires) so it was certainly something novel for me to see.
Computer science was largely familiar to me – it was on security: mostly cryptography and corresponding cryptanalysis, but also briefly touching on stego, social engineering and PGP certs. It’s interesting to note that contrary to what I might have expected a year ago, the course places little emphasis on learning programming languages such as C++ well, but far more about simply working out algorithms and computational methods for solving problems. Having now done some (sort of) formal algorithm training (and being aware of the syntax of many different types of languages), I’m seeing the language divide beginning to melt away and starting to see the use of teaching, say, Dijkstra’s Algorithm in pseudocode rather than C++. And of course, it was no surprise that Mathematics (particularly llinear algebra) played a pretty hefty role.
Chemical engineering was quite a new one for me since I hadn’t a clue what it was all about beforehand. Turns out it’s essentially process engineering. After this we were given a time-lag-style summary of a first-year student’s perspective on applying to engineering at Cambridge. Following lunch was an intriguing talk on mechanical engineering involving some familiar circular motion revision and a pretty awesome demo of a Morrison Shelter, with the speaker’s mobile phone as collateral (sitting inside a flimsy-looking metal-wire shelter as a 5KG weight was dropped on it)! This was followed by an excellent demo-rich talk on electrical engineering (I was delighted to be able to recognise an AS-style power amp, albeit one with three concatenated push-pull amplifiers [power!]) which revised some electromag physics (dPhi/dt, I(lxB), q(vxB) etc). There were also some nice experiments with a big coil and an iron rod going through it – though I felt rather sad about being so delighted by seeing Physics demonstrated so wonderfully. Maybe I’m just weird that way…
The talk on applications of IT to engineering was highly interesting theoretically though the program appeared depressingly slow – crunching a few matrix equations would have taken MATLAB about five seconds at the most. The speaker left his program running for a good half of his talk before it finally finished… The guy in charge gave a talk on applying and UCAS and other such helpful stuff in which he cracked the same joke as he does for every single one of these: apparently someone wrote on his personal statement [paraphrased]:
I do lots of music. I enjoy playing the flute; sometimes I play with myself
The day was concluded with a talk on civil engineering, though by that time my brain was complaining about lack of sleep.
The thing I love about studying things like Physics and Maths is that every now and then as I learn new topics and areas in the subjects, I come across proofs and lines of logical thinking and generally ‘things’ which just make me stop and think, ‘oh yeah – never thought about it that way before’, and marvel at the genius of whoever came up with it (for example OLCT told us about an intriguing interpretation of regression lines involving dot products of vectors). Maths and Physics have intriguing subtleties which never fail to inspire. I still think after today that I’ll go with Physics/Maths. Engineering subjects are interesting and probably far more directly useful practically speaking. But there were moments in the lectures when I felt the subjects were more superficial than I would like. There’s just something about delving deep into a subject and finding something surprising and counter-intuitive yet logically beautiful that makes me want to find out more. I must be *really* weird…
Again, as I was walking around Cambridge, I observed huge contrasts in the types of people around. There’s something I love about students – they make up the most diverse age group: the norm is to be radically different and anti-trendy. The town is simply buzzing full of life, from street musicians (pretty good ones as well!) to punters (literally), to human rights demonstrators sitting in cages outside King’s. This time we also got to see Corpus, Trinity and St John’s all on the same street, the three colleges about which I know enough to want to apply to. Cambridge is simply an awesome place; there’s no question about it.