I picture the precipice of human understanding as a wall of mist, concealing just barely, the vastness of the universe beyond our understanding. It is the colors of a desert sunset, and it is warm. We stare into this balmy, orange mist, not knowing what is beyond it, but solemnly understanding that our role is to find out as much as we can while it’s still our turn.
Research has always felt profound to me, and frankly, I’m glad to be back. The three years I spent away from research made me a better engineer, but this is home. This is where I feel as close to the divine as I ever will.
This week, I am reminded of more symbolic imagery, in an entirely unexpected context. We have a maiden-mother-crone situation in our current research, and I don’t know that I have seen anything so beautiful in this entire profession.
Tangential to our group is an engineer who has spent her career conducting some of the most brilliant Portland Cement Concrete Pavement research I have encountered. She announced several years ago that she was retiring this year because she wanted them to be able to find her a replacement. She has no assistant, no direct supervisor, and no research group. Her work is hers alone, and has been for some time. Our director tried to assign a few people to work on her projects, but none were a good fit. Earlier this week, he assigned me.
I went to see her on Tuesday. When I walked into her office, she smiled, put her hand on my shoulder, and said, “I have told them for years to send me someone new to take over this work. I won’t be here forever, you know. Look at you! You’re young. You’ll be here a long time. They told me you used to design bridges. You’ll be great at this. They sent me a few others, but they didn’t know anything about reinforced concrete. You know a lot about that, don’t you? Here, let me show you around.” And she showed me her life’s work. It was beautiful, and she’s right. If the part I’ve done this week is any indication, I am good at this. She seems pleased with me.
The entire thing feels right. I am back in research, and it brings together everything I have done as an engineer. Nothing I have ever learned is wasted. It all fits together, and makes things just a little clearer than they were before. With my new study, I take one tenuous step into the mist. I will soon see just a tiny bit further than I could.
I think the best part of this is that I have an intern this summer, and she has been watching all of this. She assisted me in building 3D models needed for simulation trials. She watched as I wrote the first of the code that will ultimately help me develop the design equations that guide implementation of the method we are studying.
As I do this work, with her at my side, I am so acutely aware that before I know it, the day will come that I will be handing off my research to some younger engineer, hoping with my entire being that they have what it takes to carry it forward, not my way, but their way. I have a lot to accomplish between now and then, but it feels like yesterday that I was my intern’s age. She is only 5 years older than my daughter. It goes by fast. It all goes by fast.
When I picture the precipice of human understanding now, I no longer only see those of us who are currently there. I see those who came before us, guiding us at our side, gently and wisely, tempered by a lifetime of taking step after step into the mist. Then there are those who are where I am, stoic and wide-eyed, peering into the mist, hoping to see just a tiny bit more than we did yesterday, occasionally taking a tiny, shaky, tenuous step. And half a step behind us are the maidens, the ones whose turn it is next, watching us, furiously taking notes, learning all they can about the tiny bit of the mist that they can see from where they are.
Maidens. Mothers. Crones. Engineers.