Colin Wood had said to me more than two decades ago –
You won’t learn much about engineering here, Khai. Not as much as you would if you had gone to, say, Imperial College. But you will know that you don’t know. And you can (then) find out (about what you don’t know).
Or, more succinctly, he was telling me that I won’t be taught about “engineering”. I would, instead, learn how to think.
I was admitted to Mansfield, and yet I was taught mostly at Wadham. There was a reason for this. John Harding, the resident tutor at Mansfield, was a materials guy. I went up to Oxford for electrical engineering, and so he sent me to Wadham.
Wadham was markedly different from Mansfield. It was founded earlier (in 1600s), and had a rich and varied history. This was where Christopher Wren (the polymath in physics, astronomy and architecture), Robert Boyle (Boyle’s Law) and Robert Hooke (notably Newton’s nemesis) had their first meetings as the Oxford Philosophical Club. This was the precursor to the Royal Society – the foremost learned society, the oldest scientific institution in the world.
Colin Wood was my tutor at Wadham. And so was the late David Edwards.
I think I had spent more one-on-one time with David Edwards than any other person in the world, barring my own father. In my first year, I would see him twice a week together with Richard Carroll, but in the second and third years I would be get one-on-one tutorials with him (Richard had, by then, dropped electronics and signed up to read management instead.) And in my fourth year, he supervised my project on smart antennas – something squarely inside his field of expertise.
Professor Edwards was rather cold to me at first, but he warmed up quickly, and I had grown to like him. I still remembered vividly being in his rustic room, and how I would get distracted looking outside the window into Wadham’s 17th century front quadrangle while he scribbled on the blackboard. I supposed a few hundred years back, the gang of Wren, Boyle and Hooke was probably in a room facing the same quad, talking about the scientific discoveries they made that eventually formed the backbone of modern society.
I remembered one instance where I had gotten stuck with a problem where I had to prove an engineering theorem. He told me, “Khai, let’s do this from first principles” and proceeded to derive the theorem from the Principle of Equipartition of Energy.
I had grown to realize what Professor Edwards was really teaching me. It wasn’t about the engineering theorem at all. He was teaching me how to think.
“Khai, let’s do this from first principles.”
What an Oxford tutor does is to get a little group of students together and smoke at them. Men who have been systematically smoked at for four years turn into ripe scholars… A well-smoked man speaks and writes English with a grace that can be acquired in no other way.Stephen Leacock, 1921
I had carried with me the “Oxford angst” for many years since I came down from Oxford (yes, the term for leaving Oxford was “coming down” – just like how one would “go up” to Oxford). I thought my MEng (Oxon) degree would give me an engineering career which would distinguish me from the rest of the populace – but I ended up with the same kind of job as everyone else.
I remembered coming back from work one day (it was my first job with Telekom) and thought, “I didn’t need Oxford to do this shit.” Anyone could do the job that I was doing – they didn’t need someone who plowed through four grueling years of Oxford for that.
Only many years later did I realize that I had gotten it all wrong. Sure, Oxford didn’t give me a moneyed job. Instead, it had given me something which was immeasurably more precious, like what it had given Oxonians for hundreds of years before me. The aptitude to tell gem from gravel, to sort the gold from the dross. To think from first principles. And, to quote John Alexander Smith, sometime Professor of Moral Philosophy at Magdalen College, an ability to detect if a man is talking rot.
Also, that surety of feeling that I could bat with the best there had been, intellectually.