University Years (1977-1984)
Going to the university is when life got serious. A lot of kids go wild in college, when they get away from home. I was the opposite. I was wild before college, and going to the university is when my life settled down and got serious. (My parents had never been very controlling of their children, being mainly advisory and with some reasonable limits, whereby we maintained self-determination.)
Moving 200 miles from home is an adventure, and northwest Arkansas is very nice. There is a large mountain range between the two, which is always inspiring and relaxing to traverse, and it's a nice drive to think about things. At the time, the region was not well known, but currently it is very highly rated as a region of the US for quality of life.
My high school counselor and my father thought that engineering was my most natural subject, according to cognitive and personality examinations. That was fine with me because I enjoyed science and engineering.
Even moreso, I gravitated towards science because I perceived most scientists and the scientific community as a whole as the most rational and objective group, which I was most peaceful and comfortable in. People were often irrational and unpredictable.
Engineering has a "toy" appeal and is always fun. However, pure science and understanding the universe became my main interest. On the other hand, I wanted to do something good for the world, not just hedonistically dive into intellectual pursuits. The challenge was that I had to do some kind of work to earn my way in the world, whereby my intellectual pursuits are something I could pursue in my free time.
There was a reactive streak to me. The first strong reaction I had was when I witnessed environmental destruction in a careless and overly selfish way by people, as a kid who loved nature but saw development around me destroying it, often unnecessarily out of carelessness. I had just felt powerless to do anything about it, but it got me thinking about politics a little bit, and planted some thinking routines in my mind. Going thru high school, there were politically minded kids, some with politician fathers, who I admired but I stayed apolitical and shy myself, not really interested in school politics or that kind of social stuff, something I regret now, as it would have been good experience. I recommend that teenagers at least hang out in those circles to observe.
Going to the university, I was maturing into the realization that the time had come for me to play a role and take some responsibility in the world, which required quite a transition in myself.
This was 1977 and the world had been thru the 1972-73 Arab oil embargo. Environmentalism was on the rise, too. I had great faith (at that time) in the potential of technology to create solutions to our problems, and engineering seemed a good field to be in. I also had a personal fascination with energy conversion and electric power systems.
At that time, newly elected President Carter had created the Department of Energy, so I thought that alternative energy should also be a trend on university campuses.
Several department heads and professors were greeted by an undergraduate (i.e., me) coming to them saying that he wanted to learn about alternative energy, perhaps with an emphasis on electrical power systems or else chemistry, and asking if they would like to be my officially required "advisor" to sign off on my curriculum. It took awhile, but after being bounced around a number of professors in various departments who were obviously not interested in taking an ambitious student like me onboard, I finally found one who was seriously interested in the topics and was highly competent.
This was a Danish nuclear engineer in the mechanical engineering department, a pleasant and serious professor. We talked about world energy, politics, energy economics, and nuclear energy. So I started off in Mechanical Engineering.
Part of the reason we got along was that I was already a believer in nuclear energy, at that time, and we were on the same side of the political spectrum on that issue, as we agreed from the start. In my viewpoint, I felt that nuclear power was far cleaner than coal and oil, and environmental issues like acid rain, global warming, and fossil fuel mining & throughput put me on the side of the more clever nuclear reactor with its lack of emissions. Nuclear waste disposal seemed a relatively small technical challenge, compared to wars over oil and all the sociopolitics involved, as well as dealing with emissions of fossil fuels. At that time, I was very familiar with global warming and carbon dioxide, but that was a much lesser concern to society at the time, quite unlike current times. However, I was more worried about acid rain in those times, based on the literature I read on species disappearing or being decimated in lakes and streams, and affects on soils, which seemed dramatically more damaging to the environment.
Solar and other sources were interesting but clearly not economical or practical at that time, though at least solar had a promising future in the longterm. Nuclear power seemed the best solution for the next few decades, until solar technologies could mature.
All the money going into military capabilities applicable to the far away Middle East, the vulnerability of the world's economies, and the potential for escalation into world war were like clouds over my head. I felt compelled to pour my talents into solving this situation, and I thought getting energy from the nuclei of American soil was a good solution. I was still a bit nationalistic at that time, too unfamiliar with the rest of the world.
It wasn't an energy crisis. It was an energy ailment, so the school of thought went, and it would only get worse as the rest of the world grew up and consumed more.
I felt a moral obligation, indeed a duty, to pursue a field in which I could help solve world problems. However, I knew embarrassingly little about the world and was going to be patient in my research and assessment of my options.
I was also curious about the inner universe of the atom and the nucleus, as much as I was fascinated by the outer universe as a whole. By pursuing nuclear energy, I could be satisfied intellectually, too, about inner space, particle physics, and the fundamentals of the universe. Being in energy, I could also keep an eye on other alternative energy sources by an education in engineering.
However, besides the one course on nuclear engineering, there was little more in the curriculum of any department about energy.
Thus, most of my education was at the library, and which I got no credit for, nor asked for. It was partly personal and private.
The library became my refuge. It was no longer the forest and mountains. I was an adult and wanted to engage with the world. I still drove into the mountains and hiked for recreation, but I brought books and articles to read on top of the bluffs or with my feet in the streams.
However, while studying the Three Mile Island nuclear accident (contractor design shortcuts, plus human error), and also reading about nuclear materials proliferation to various political regimes around the world, I started to adopt some doubts about the realities of nuclear power and the ability to maintain inspections and controls.
I still thought, and I still think, that the plusses far outweighed the minuses in the peaceful, developed world of places such as Europe, North America, Japan, and many other highly civilized and well regulated countries, and that nuclear power could make a huge contribution as a most environmentally friendly and economical source of energy.
However, I was facing sociopolitical realities, regardless of whether or not they made sense. Human nature.
At a certain point early in my education, I "graduated" from a theoretical outlook on the world (where nuclear would be cleanest by far) to a realistic viewpoint (where simplistic perceptions of a majority in a democracy, nuclear materials proliferation, as well as human negligence and cheap greed, often reign).
I became a real expert on alternative energy schemes. However, I knew the laws of economics, too, as well as the reality of sociopolitics. (Again, practically all of this on my own, with no credit towards a degree.)
I can still remember all the graphs, about how much energy comes from what fuel sources, how much goes into various things like transport, space heating, refrigerators, etc., and also where we dig up coal, what the different grades are like, the details of various prospective synthetic fuels, "reserves" according to price, electric vehicles, and so on.
One Saturday night, I was leisurely browsing the library in my personal free time and in the mood for going off on another lark just for kicks and grins for a night (which beat most conversations at parties). I picked up one of the "solar power satellite" books and thumbed thru it, initially thinking of it as way out science fiction of the present which might become something in about 50 years. Isaac Asimov (a favorite author of mine as a teenager) had written a public article arguing for the benefits of this system, and its economics.
Solar Power Satellites (SPS) is a concept where you put solar energy collectors (solar cells) in space to get sunlight 24 hours/day (like noontime at the equator with no clouds) and radio beam the power back to central antenna utilities which convert it to electricity to go out on regular power lines.
Take out the coal power plant, or nuclear plant, and put in a field of antennas.
I hadn't considered it seriously, but knew that President Carter had ordered studies into it. I decided to see what was up, even if it was impractical. (I sometimes disagreed with Asimov.) The Space Shuttle was in the design phase and still enjoyed the myth of dramatically reducing launch costs.
After getting my fill of the model, I was ready to throw it aside and move on to another subject, but I quickly turned to the back to the conclusions and recommendations and noted a brief reference to a spinoff study into the option of using materials already in space to make most of the SPS satellites, from the Moon and asteroids near Earth, instead of expensively blasting it all up from Earth, for economic reasons. It took on a further science fiction nonserious element, but it looked like fun reading, and I shouldn't reject it without analyzing the basis, so I decided to see if our library had the references cited. I headed off and found some of them.
Right off the bat, I saw other applications, not just solar power satellites. I still didn't take solar power satellites (SPS) seriously, but I did see space industrialization, using materials already in space rather than blasting everything up, for serious space development. Actually, the most economical and sustainable way. (As someone years later noted, the Europeans who colonized the Americas didn't bring all their bricks and wood from Europe.) At that time, I could also see space colonization, starting with engineering outposts.
Admittedly, it appealed to me to just leave this crazy world to let the crazies stew in their own juices, and ensure the survival of our species and life from Earth in space, starting with the brightest from Earth.
However, how would we get there? At the time, I thought we needed to convince the government to fund this. How naive I was back then.
I started to study SPS a little more, and started to see the merits, if we built them from materials already in space. They were simple, mass produced items, perfect for a new frontier. The alternative, blasting them up from Earth, seemed uneconomical (like I thought before), and I still didn't see the merits of the study in a 100% Earth launch scenario.
At this time, I had already become familiar with world politics from a strategic resources point of view. It transformed that world view, too. Obliterated it, actually. We were no longer limited to mining the earth.
It offered to save the environment. Move manufacturing into space.
We should also have some sort of international cooperation. At the time, I was still thinking of governments and politics. It would still be many years before I abandoned that view and went towards private multinationals.
Over the next few days, then weeks, and months, I thought about all this, and where my career was heading. I already felt like a "professional student" taking too long. I was finishing my junior year in engineering with a 3.8 grade point average and could be out in the big money world in a short time, but I felt that I may not be entirely happy with my career and now I was thinking that perhaps I should reconsider.
At that time, I was also reading a lot of contemporary philosophy books, both western and eastern, as well as nutrition and taking care of one's own body and mind. I also became a professional student, reconsidering where I wanted to go, not in a big rush to graduate and enter a career.
In my course work, my favorite coursework had become physics.
One eventful day, I went to my University Physics III class. I liked the professor, so I attended that class. Dr. Otto Henry Zinke. He was a dynamic and energetic person with strong social skills, a well rounded individual.
Dr. Otto Henry Zinke was also an advisor to the well respected Senator Dale Bumpers from Arkansas (in Washington, D.C.) who supported alternative energy work, though Zinke was a bit on the far right even for that Senator. I loved the class, and didn't relate to the countless people who dreaded it. In fact, the mechanical engineering department had complained to the physics department about the difficulty of the class, and decided to cancel Physics III as a requirement for an engineering degree. The course was into modelling the atom, quantum physics, and that sort of micro, non-macro-engineering stuff, as well as Einstein's relativity.
Dr. Zinke was a big thinker and his course was challenging. He was also quite a character to watch.
Chapter 1 was Relativity, though you only needed to understand the fundamental principles and be able to do a few simple calculations if given a specific case. Nonetheless, all the concepts required some abstract mathematical modeling applied to particular cases. Mathematics is the language of both engineering and physics, and the quality of an analysis depends on how articulate you are in the mathematical language.
Anyway, after awhile in that class we had the first exam, and on that fateful day, Dr. Zinke came in with our graded stack of exams. Zinke exams were the sort where if you got a score of 50% out of 100 then you got a B. 65% to 70% usually got you an A. If you got about 20% by his judgement, then you passed. It was all on a curve. This was already known in the class gossip.
Dr. Zinke started off by saying that he got one person in the class who had scored better on his exam than anyone going back many years, and spoke a few things about this person "really getting it". I expected it to be one of those well mannered guys in the front. Then he asked "Who is Mark Prado?" I was stunned.
It was that long haired hippy looking guy sitting along the wall in the middle. He had never noticed me. I guess because he assumed my politics didn't fit his far right wing ones. I looked a lot like another professor on the opposite side of the political spectrum who Zinke seemed to have a rivalry with, the two extremes in the department who sometimes duked it out, which was sometimes entertaining and interesting, other times wondering whether it was going too far.
I walked up and took the exam, with a 98 on it, and he said "see me after class" and that was the end of it at the moment. I looked at my exam, and what I thought and modeled had actually been right. I'd missed just a minor thing on one particular problem, like missing a punctuation mark in my mathematical language, for the loss of 2%.
After class, he asked me what I wanted to do with my life, and I was a bit intimidated, almost speechless. I knew, but I didn't know what to say. He pushed some button inside of me, which reminded me of my father. But Zinke was also on the opposite side of my political spectrum, too, and a bit overbearing.
I later did some research for him in laser spectroscopy and thermal modeling. His equipment was outdated and measurements drifted over time due to apparently faulty instruments, and then one day he said bye and headed to Colorado on vacation with his wife, leaving me there with the mess.
The National Science Foundation funded it, and it allowed me to not work elsewhere waiting tables, such as most recently as a light duty engineer in a poorly air conditioned and dusty factory which made car parts next to the railroad tracks, as well as waiting tables & socializing for tips which made my feet sore. The worse part of both of the latter jobs was the fixed schedule. I thrive on flextime.
One important event was the TV series "Cosmos" with Dr. Carl Sagan as presenter, a 13 part series which ran in 1980 from September to December (created in 1978-79). In one of the episodes, they raised the question about why we had not detected the existence of any other life in the universe beyond our own planet Earth. They raised a calculation of the probability of there being life elsewhere in the universe, such as approximate numbers of stars in galaxies, number of galaxies, planets, and so on. The last parameter was the risk of a civilization destroying itself due to its advancing technology. For example, what if over 99% of civilizations eventually destroy themselves?
The focus of that time was nuclear war, but I did not think nuclear war would make us extinct, though it may kill the vast majority of people on our planet. I started thinking of other ways, just as biotechnology. I also started asking myself the same question that Dr. Zinke had asked me: What do I want to do with my life?
I switched my major field of study to physics, just a little more than a year from what would be completion of a BS in engineering, and setting me at least 2 years from graduation again, but I wanted to better understand the fundamentals of how the universe works, which could help me understand chemistry and potentially other things, such as whether a big new particle physics collider could create a black hole on Earth (the answer is that it appears unlikely, in view of high energy cosmic rays striking Earth compared to our particle collider capabilities at around that time).
At the same time, I was also taking upper level courses in political science. It's funny, but the other students and some professors thought I was a political science major. I was even elected President of our university's chapter of Pi Sigma Alpha, the political science honorary society. I organized activities and people followed and implemented them, unlike the purely ceremonial Pi Sigma Alpha of years before to just put on students' CVs.
Our university was blessed by funding from Sam Walton, at that time the first or second richest man in America, due to Wal-Mart which he founded several decades previously, growing it from one store to a nationwide chain.
Walton funded the creation of the Fulbright Institute, named after our Senator of the 1960s, J. William Fulbright, who was Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was opposed to the Vietnam War, and had a lot of prophetic things to say about the future, such as in regard to Israel and the Palestinians.
When Carter lost to Reagan, Walton brought in some of Carter's top advisors and I was blessed to have the opportunity to take some of their courses. They had only one or two each. They were set up in beautiful homes in suburban hilltops/mountaintops. As the University of Arkansas isn't known for cerebral students, I had almost exclusive access to these people, and gained a lot of experience vicariously.
I met a lady from overseas, an Indian from Malaysia. She eventually worked for the Fulbright Institute. We both shared a purpose in life, and she moved in with me. Her name was Mani. However, I would prefer to leave out this part of the story just out of privacy, while also giving some credit.
However, I was still taking my motorcycle into the mountain trails alone. I spent a lot of time out there. Sometimes I brought my textbooks with me and studied sitting on the top of a cliff or at a country restaurant or cabin. There was a huge national forest, and I had topographic maps for a wide area.
I graduated at the end of 1983, with a B.Sc. in physics, and had fulfilled the requirements for "minors" in political science and mathematics.
In 1984, I decided to finish my last year of engineering school and get a double major, while waiting for Mani to graduate. I was so close, and why not?
At one point in the early 1980s, before I graduated with my B.Sc., I stumbled upon some stunning space settlements work featuring beautiful orbital space habitats rotating to produce artificial gravity, shaped as wheels, spheres, and cylinders, with large windows and mirrors, and crops and homes inside. This work was led and publicly promoted by Dr. Gerard O'Neill, a physicist at Princeton University. These space settlements reminded me a lot of the slightly previous Arthur C. Clarke works, such as the rotating wheel space station in the movie "2001: A Space Odyssey" and the rotating cylinder in his book "Rendezvous with Rama". The first two publications I encountered were "Space Settlements: A Design Study" published in 1977 though I didn't see it until a few years alter, and its follow-on, "Space Resources and Space Settlements".
I eventually found out about his not for profit organization, the Space Studies Institute, some of their work, and some other publications of Dr. O'Neill, and started to follow them.
Eventually, I got a very small research grant from the Space Studies Institute in Princeton, New Jersey, for studying pulsed power sources for a lunar based electric launcher called a Mass Driver. A new professor, Dr. Renfroe, was a key to getting that. He indicated that the grant money was relatively trivial, and it was more out of mutual interest in the topic than for the pay. My pay was laughably small, $1000, but I would have done it for free. We also had a trip sponsored to a wonderful research center in Austin, Texas. Dr. Renfroe was a new, shining star in the otherwise drab engineering department I had left behind (and who, incidentally, disliked some of the same professors I disliked, while liking the same ones I liked). He was a Mormon with a wide worldly view. We became friends.
On the side, I had another interesting job plus one OK job which paid our bills.
The interesting job was selling display advertisements for a local newspaper. It was interesting because I talked to the owners of businesses. Entrepreneurs are my favorite kind of people, creative do-ers. In the morning, I would call the usual client list plus some cold calls to potentially interested new customers. In the afternoon, I would drive around to those who wanted to meet, draw up an ad together, and give me artwork to bring back, and generally talk about business (my favorite part of the meetings). It was a nearly minimum wage job, but I consider it the most meaningful and Real World educational job I'd ever had up to that point in time.
The other job was teaching for the mathematics department, algebra courses for commoners.
As noted before, the Mechanical Engineering Department was a stark contrast to the Physics Department. Few of the professors were in the same intellectual class. The engineering professors primarily did consulting research and had cheap graduate students teach classes, even at the upper levels. They also didn't give a shit.
They had just gotten an electron microscope but it was idle almost all of the time, almost like they got it for prestige. (See below probation.) To make a long story short, I got some meteorites from the chemistry department and did imaging and x-ray spectroscopy. (I also did spectroscopy of Mani's gold jewelry for composition in high precision and we sold some of it to get by.)
At about this time, the mechanical engineering department had suddenly found itself slapped with an official "probation" by the national institution which gives accreditation to university engineering departments. (My Danish friend was long gone by this time, complaining of cronyism from the old Arkansas good ol boys, and Dr. Renfroe was one of the refreshing newcomers.) Since I had already started my degree in previous years, I would be allowed to finish it and get an official B.Sc.
Engineering was very easy for me, but I didn't like most of my professors or instructors. I didn't attend many classes, mainly just exams, because the classes just went over things already in the book.
I had one instructor for 3 classes who really didn't like me. He was retired from the Navy and had been working at the department as an instructor. He was not a professor. He was an old man who would repeatedly get stuck on problems on the blackboard, and each time dryly mumble a joke that it was time for another six-pack. He would do pop quizzes when I wasn't there (because I was out working for a real private sector American job, not the regimented Navy), and also give me zeros for exam sections if there was a small mistake. I brought the latter to the department head, who only pretended to be concerned, and nothing was done. I was that long haired guy, and I didn't push too hard.
I think that the department may have decided that the policy solution to poor class attendance was pop quizzes, not a change in quality of teaching staff, because pop quizzes became common and I missed a lot of them. Blame the students. A few accepted my explanation that I was working 2 jobs to support myself and education, but most did not, like "the law is the law" and students need to be punished.
Meanwhile, I was starting to interview for jobs. Most of the job offers were in the $27,000 to $30,000/year range (1980 dollars), contingent upon my finishing my engineering degree. There were practically none offered for someone with a degree in physics, of those coming to interview at our university.
I think that my physics degree of 3.6 GPA was the highest of anyone graduating that year (taken down by English, history and other electives). There was a proper Christian guy graduating a year after me who was a disciplined student with a higher GPA but he believed in Creation and the great flood, and criticized my evolution school of thought. Amazing species, aren't we? Unlimited ability to believe anything. He was a good, friendly guy and I liked him, but it was an example of how one's religious beliefs and family upbringing can really entrench one into a stubborn belief system.
I had applied to some graduate schools and got a couple of assistanceships offered based on my physics degree, and visited a favorite one just to explore an alternative graduate school, [reserved fairly liberal and highly reputable] University in [the northeastern US], due to a particular program they had on technology and human affairs. However, my interviews with the professors there convinced me to NOT go to graduate school, at least not there. I had become savvy politically and business-wise by this time. While I was tired of student poverty, I was even more tired of ivory tower viewpoints, and I was not impressed, more like disappointed with this alternative university. Not a significant difference from the University of Arkansas, and in fact I liked my physics and political science professors in Arkansas a lot more! So, instead of graduate school, I decided to go out into the real working world for awhile, but kept an open mind to graduate school after working in the Real World first. (I never did go back to a university, simply because I was busy working and pursuing other things in later years.)
Only one entity from the Washington, D.C., region interviewed at the University of Arkansas. That was the U.S. Patent Office. I went to the interview and the interviewer liked me. However, the starting pay would be $18,000 for a physicist, and around $27,000 for an engineer with my grade point average. However, there would be no moving allowance, and I wouldn't even get my first paycheck for a couple of months!
I decided to take the job for its location, and applied based on my B.Sc. in physics and immediate availability, not mentioning my engineering stuff. The patent office offered me a job almost immediately, and I dropped all my classes and jobs and started selling my stuff.
After scraping together all the money I could, I loaded up my old stationwagon and drove to Washington, D.C.
Funny, I didn't submitted my university transcript and grades after my first job. I got work from interviews and technical talk.
I tell my daughters that what's important is not your grades, but what you love to learn and do in this world. Who cares about grades? It is capabilities that matter. Unless you want to be just ordinary meat in this world. Go to work, come home and watch TV, consume and pollute. Not me, and not my family and associates in this world.
OK, on to my professional life in the Real World in the next sections ...
mark-prado.com > History > Age 18-25, academic life (1977-1984)
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