Reflections Of An Electrical Engineer

by Michael Gosse

Copyright © 1995
National Federation of the Blind

          From the Editor: Dr. Michael Gosse has been a committed Federationist since he received an NFB scholarship in 1985. He served as President of the Connecticut affiliate for several years, but last year, after completing his Ph.D. in electrical engineering at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, he accepted a job in Maryland with Atlantic Aerospace Electronics Corporation. At the 1993 Convention of the National Federation of the Blind he described the way in which he got his job and a little of what he does. This is what he had to say:

          Earlier in the week my voice started to go a little bit, and I was concerned that I wasn't going to be able to speak this afternoon. The reason I was having trouble with my voice was that every time somebody mentions Pennsylvania, Connecticut, or Maryland, of course I have to cheer.

          I am a computational electromagnetics scientist, whatever that means. Hopefully, by the end of this talk, you'll at least understand that probably you don't want to be one too. The man who started this science a number of years ago--in fact it was 1875--was James Clerk Maxwell. In that year he published his treatise on electricity and magnetism. I'm going to read to you the first two sentences of his preface. "The fact that certain bodies, when rubbed, tend to attract other bodies was known to the ancients. In modern times a great variety of other phenomena have been observed and are related to the phenomenon of attraction." I wonder how many copies of that book he sold to people who didn't read past that point.

          In our company we work in general on electronic warfare. What that means is that you're a lot better off in the Army or the Air Force or the Navy or the Marines if the enemy cannot find you or communicate amongst themselves. Being good at electronic warfare means you save the lives of not only your own people, but also those of the enemy. I consider this to be a good thing, and it is how I justify my job.

          I started out in electrical engineering at the age of six. I had an odd father. I don't know whether he ever learned a bedtime story or not, but when he would come up to tuck me in to bed, he would say, "Now Michael, you have a five-volt source and a five-ohm resistor. The current times the resistance is equal to the voltage; what's the current?" And I would guess, of course. The only number I knew was one, and it was the correct answer. The problems progressed until I was through high school. They kicked me out of electronics class my sophomore year because I had already mastered all of the material through senior year. When you start at the age of six, you have a bit of a jump.

          In college I tried to be something other than an electrical engineer. I tried to study chemical engineering and go on to physics for a Ph.D., but the bias was just too strong. I ended up in electrical engineering. And since I wanted to get a Ph.D., in May [of 1992] I actually received the degree. Then I proceeded to look for a job in the worst economy that we have seen in a long time. In ten years of post-secondary school I couldn't have picked a worse time to graduate. The nine-month period that I looked for a job was challenging and interesting. I interviewed for a number of positions.

          I'd like to tell you how I landed this position. I was at the 1993 Washington Seminar and got a call on my answering machine in Pennsylvania from Atlantic Aerospace, and I immediately called them back, and we chatted about some technical things--can you use a computer? I said I preferred not to. I told them I was down in the Washington area, which is where the company is located, and I'd be glad to stop by and talk with them. They were a little busy. They had a trip to Advanced Research Projects Administration (ARPA) planned. I said, "I'm down here with the National Federation of the Blind, and we're meeting with Congressmen this week, talking about legislative issues. I'll be here through Wednesday." We tried to schedule an interview for Wednesday afternoon, but of course a number of us were planning to go to New York for the hearing in the New York law suit, and I wanted to be a part of that. I told them that I would be leaving for the National Center on Wednesday afternoon.

          They said "Call us sometime on Thursday, and maybe we can work something out for Friday." So on the road to New York, I went to a pay phone and called and heard, "No, we can't schedule anything. We'll be in touch with you."

          I said, "We're in New York for this hearing for the National Federation of the Blind, and I'll be going to New Hampshire after that." When I got there, I called them again. I said that I was now in New Hampshire. We had a long, technical interview this time. We talked about the finite element technique for solving magnetic problems. I told them that I'd done it before; then I went and looked it up. Towards the end of the conversation he said, "You know, you keep mentioning that you've been doing activities with the National Federation of the Blind; are you involved in that organization?"

          I said, "You could say that. I am the Connecticut affiliate president." (Of course, I hadn't spent any of this time in Connecticut.)

          Then he said, "Do you have a dog or a cane?"

          I said, "Yes, I have a cane."

          He said, "Well I suppose you wouldn't have to go to any conferences on your own."

          And I said, "Hold on a second here. I called you in Washington, D.C.; I talked to you when I was on my way to New York City; now I'm in New Hampshire. How do you think that I got to all these places?"

          I was on the plane for an on-site interview the next week. I had my worst interview ever because I was sick at the time. I just kept telling them that I was sick and that I really wasn't thinking straight, but it was apparently a successful interview. They contacted my advisor, and he said that I had done all this stuff in computational electromagnetics before, backing me up on that one. I appreciated that. I ended up getting snowed in in Baltimore, and you can imagine how much of a tragedy it was, having to spend time with my friends around Baltimore! Before I got home, I had a job offer. [applause]

          They wanted me right away, so I took a week to wrap up some business for the Connecticut affiliate and headed to the Washington area.

          The job I ended up working on at Atlantic Aerospace is the computation of the radar cross section of a radome. I am in the antenna design group. Antennas come in all shapes and sizes. If you stick an antenna on an aircraft and you don't cover it with something and you go Mach II, that antenna is going to be left somewhere behind you because it will just get blown right off the aircraft. Additionally, antennas are good at picking electromagnetic waves out of the air. Light is made up of electromagnetic waves. They come in a great variety of frequencies, like color. An antenna picks these electromagnetic waves out of the air. It also has the job of transmitting them into the air. As a result of these two processes, if you send an electromagnetic wave at an antenna, it reflects a larger electromagnetic wave, which means that, if you're the enemy, you can find an antenna very easily--it has a large radar cross-section. So you have two reasons why you want to hide this antenna: one is that it will blow off the aircraft, and the other is that it appears very large on a radar screen. So you put a plastic bubble over it. But the plastic bubble also has a large radar cross section, and nobody really understands--it's all Maxwell's fault. Nobody really understands how to design radomes very well. It's a black art.

          So they said, "Mike, we need a computer program to analyze these electromagnetic waves that scatter from a radome." I worked for a couple of weeks on some theories and did some computations on how long it would take a computer to solve this problem. For example, it would take a Cray computer, which is very fast, let's say one gigaflop (one billion floating point operations per second), about one year to solve any problem of interest. I was beginning to fear for my job! I thought nobody would want to invest that much time in such a project. But since I've been working on this problem, through some mathematical tricks I have gotten the problem down to one that would maybe take a week to do. Somebody might be willing to wait around a week for the answer, so I feel that my job is safe for now. I am not certain, however, that it will last all that long. We need faster computers. That's all there is to it. But my job is safe for now. I hope to get a couple of publications out of it. And, of course, once I have a few publications to show for my work, what do you think I'm going to do? Go back to school--hopefully as a teacher this time. So it's a pleasure being in Maryland now, and I thank you for your attention.




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