Seven answers on 7Q

Floyd Maxwell, chemical engineer, techie, and his father's son

His Web site is here.


Let's talk plastics: Can you explain in laymen's terms why the development of synthetic polymers that came to be called plastics were such an important breakthrough in chemical engineering?

Plastic is defined by its moldability. Thus, plastic is like the software of the manufacturing world. It allows humans to think up ingenious uses for it, and this makes it interesting to think about, and so more products are thought up and the cycle repeats.

Plastic is almost infinitely moldable. It can be made to flow (like the lining on high-end ski boots that conforms to your foot's shape), can be incredibly strong (Kevlar), or light (think Gossamer Albatross) and takes color well. And the waste in plastics manufacturing can be 100% recycled into the feedstock for future products.

Contrast this with wood. Wood has a grain that reduces the number of ways you can do things. Wood has knots, a color that may limit what other colors it can become, and wood chips are usually only fit for those big "hay stack" burners -- wasted. It also takes dozens of years to grow a tree.

But what makes plastic even more valuable is that it comes from such basic components -- hydrocarbons. You don't have to grow it, log it, seed it or truck it. It is also remarkably pure. Try to make wood into paper and you waste about 50%, most of that the lignin that glues the cellulose fibers together. Try to make fine paper, and you start to lose some of the cellulose fibers as well.

In essence, plastic allows control and I guess Engineers are all control freaks at heart.


What are the main professional preoccupations of the chemical engineer?

Couldn't tell you. I went into the field because my father had a love of instrumentation that began in World War II. He even set up the instrumentation department at BCIT and ran it for 11 years. I made the mistake of thinking that being an engineer was even better than being just a technician. It would have been, I suppose, if the employment opportunities when I graduated in 1984 had been better.

In the 70's, there were on average about three jobs for every graduate, but when I graduated there was about one job for every six graduates. I think it was the sight of a 1983 grad pumping gas that really made me want to switch fields. I bought a PC clone the following year and have been in the computer world ever since.

My first "free lance" project was typing in my father's writings. He had very wide ranging interests and it was a pleasure to type in his stories. He had a fascinating approach to philosophy, with predominantly zen and humor influences.

So, I switched fields and have never worked as a Chemical Engineer. I have also lost a lot of interest in making things out of chemicals, and have been vegetarian for 20 years. I trust nature's handiwork more than my own.


Your dad sounds like a fascinating person. Care to share one of your favorite stories about him?

Tough to narrow it down. He was years ahead of his time. He made his own Hi Fi system in the 70s and went to rock concerts then, yet loved classical music as well.

He was one of the first to visit China, having always wanted to see the Great Wall. Naturally he insisted on renting a bicycle while in Beijing, promptly got lost and was escorted home by Chinese police.

But for me one of his greatest aspects was his fearlessness. He grew up lower-class English, which we can hardly imagine in North America, and so he was always ready to defend himself. One memorable story involved him waking up in the middle of the night. While walking to the bathroom, he noticed a shadowy figure in the corner. He said one of his classic lines like "So what do you think?" and the next thing the burglar knew he was being thrown down the basement staircase. Me and my brothers thought that was fantastic!

He loved sports, cycled for 70 years, including across Canada when he was in his 70s, took up painting in his late 70s, loved to dance, played the harmonica and gardened with his bare feet.

In keeping with his simplicity and yet generosity of lifestyle, I offer his writings to any one who is interested.


Now that you've got our curiosity up, how about a sample of your father's writings?

Here is one he called "Family Money", based on an event while he was in China:

I was watching with casual interest the careful way the hotel money clerks were executing the exchange of our traveler's checks for their currency in Yuan. They were unsmiling, firm and efficient. They had to be, since any one transaction, averaging $100 to $200, was probably equal to two years savings for them.

There were two girls and two men involved. The first would take the check, carefully study it and then, using an abacus, convert it into their money. The notes were then selected and counted with convincing effectiveness. The snap-flick-snap of each note had a crisp personal ring under those confident fingers.

Satisfied, the money and corresponding check were passed to the second clerk for cross-checking. She showed a similar competence and exactness. The drama only ended when the remaining two clerks made their contribution.

Words like "infallible," "businesslike" and 'unfailing' came to mind. It is always a pleasure to see professional talent at work performing with excellence no matter their field of action. And these people were obviously tops in their line of work, where mistakes were both unthinkable and unforgivable.

It would have been almost an insult for me to have checked the amount handed me after this performance. I would rather have doubted the Pope's ability to speak Latin.

Several hours later, after a well spent afternoon in the Forbidden City in Peking, I had cause to examine my money while making a purchase. Imagine my surprise when I discovered what appeared to be an excess sum of about $40.

Error was impossible when remembering how those earnest souls had done their money counting duty. Perhaps my travelers check had been a higher denomination than I thought. I brooded over this situation slowly, taking one review at a time. They couldn't have made a mistake. Mao had ruled that out.

I eventually got back to the hotel, still half wondering. When I saw them on the landing outside my door - - two men and a girl -- waiting for me to approach, this confirmed what had only been a ridiculous, vapor-thin hunch. I recognized them as the money changing team.

"Are you John?" they asked.


"Did you change a traveller's check earlier today?"

"Yes," I replied, more cautiously.

"Is this your check and signature?"


"Then we're very sorry," they said. "We've made a mistake of $40 too much."

They looked concerned and uneasy, waiting as though they expected me to deny it or say 'Tough luck, chums, you counted it four times'.

As I handed the excess money back to them, their terseness lessened and a whole series of apologies were gratefully given me for the trouble they'd caused. There was a moment of confusion as they hurriedly tried to escape through the single doorway at the same time.

I smiled.

More apologies and another round of "Sorry's" as they scampered down the nearby stairs. Back in the hotel lobby, I was sure a senior official would be awaiting the results of this encounter.

For the remaining time I spent at the hotel I never saw the old faces of the money changing staff. I imagined, by their absence, that having to explain certain mistakes to the higher authorities proved very unrewarding.


On the title page of his book of writings, I quoted one of his Zen koans that I particularly enjoy, perhaps because it took me so long to see the truth in it:

"When you're ninety percent of the way, you're half way."


So what's one of your most cherished memories of growing up in your dad's household?

Watching him make homemade toffee.

Grabbing onto his leg so he couldn't go to work, and being dragged across the floor.

Him sharing his endless range of mischievous war stories.

Throwing a football with him -- we both loved that very much.

But through it all one thing is woven: cycling.

At one point we had half a dozen bicycles in the house. When we wanted to go play tennis, we cycled there. On Saturdays he and I would cycle to town and he would go to unusual shops and buy unusual things. And on the way home, with the last mile involving about a 200 foot climb, he would periodically ride up behind me and give me a big steady push, and then do it again and maybe a third time.

Once, while I was walking down a busy street, a person came up to me that I did not know. He asked me just one question:

"Does your dad ride a bicycle?"


What did your dad think of you not following him into the engineering field?

He was always hopeful but he was never one to tell me what to do.

He was a great question asker himself, much like you Tom -- you really set me back with question #3, I knew I had to knuckle down after that one.

From time to time he would ask if there was any chance I could use my Chemical Engineering training, but as time wore on I was more and more enamored with computing any way and that is what I would tell him.

Other time to time questions were "Any chance of finding a lady?" which eventually and to everyone's enjoyment I could answer affirmatively; "So what are your tastes in classical music these days?" to which I would generally reply "I still like Beethoven," prompting one of his few slightly-snobbish replies of "Well, you're still young".

Having been a pilot and had that change his life so much he also often asked if I had "Any interest in travel?" to which I again disappointed with "Only if they pay me." And "I find travel equals inconvenience"...Replies that generally brought the greatest disapproval, but in the least critical area, so I still generally passed the test.

Luckily, if ever I wanted to score quick counter points I could answer one of his many questions about computers and inevitably get him entranced and uncomprehending at the difference between the analog computers he used in his day and the digital computers we all use today.

The core of our communication -- what meant the most to both of us -- was how he and I looked at problems and situations.

Engineering taught me to have a "basis" in a calculation, but he taught me to "always clear the work area first". Engineering said to "over-design" so that a dam would last for 50 years, but he quietly built "right-sized" furniture out of discarded scraps of wood from the local sawmill. Tying the two together, perhaps, is a phrase I coined just a few weeks ago: "An engineer is an artist with constraints."


How has your eventual line of work reflected your upbringing?

The greatest gift that I received from my father was an insatiable curiosity, a love of learning things first hand. He simply shared with enthusiasm what he had found to be interesting things.

I defaulted to taking one of them up as a profession, but in the process of doing so an even more interesting thing came along and I switched to it.

Ultimately I do the same thing for a living that my father did -- monitor and control "processes", produce "things" and share the experience with others.

He was an all-rounder: artistic, expressive, loved music, nature, photography, as was my mom.

In my world, the hobbies of music, nature and photography are the same but I have arranged to have them presented to me in digital form, whenever I turn on my computer.

He had an interesting analog career, mine has been an interesting digital one.


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