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The Voice of Engineering

By David Brindley

He wants to put a human face on engineering. To do that, he’s gone as far as rhapsodizing about his underwear: “I have new underwear and I love it because I’m an engineer. Perhaps I should explain,” says Bill Hammack.

Explain is exactly what he does every Tuesday in his weekly “Engineering & Life” commentaries for Illinois Public Radio. In his two-and-a-half-minute pieces, Hammack uses everyday, ordinary objects—from vacuum cleaners to plastic bottles to cell phones—to explore the ramifications of science and technology on society in general, and to highlight the role engineers, in particular, have played in developing new technologies that impact our daily lives. As for his new Quik-Dri underwear, Hammack traces its lineage to Wallace Carothers, the DuPont chemist who discovered nylon in 1935.

But more than just putting a human face on the engineering process, Hammack is trying to help create informed citizens who are able to participate in an increasingly technical public realm. He’s also hoping that engineers across the nation will follow the path he has chosen—mass media, in particular, radio—to accomplish that goal.

Hammack is pursuing that ambitious goal from his post as associate professor in the department of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In addition to teaching an introductory engineering class to non-engineering majors, Hammack produces weekly commentaries at the campus-licensed WILL-AM radio station that are broadcast each Tuesday on Illinois Public Radio during National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered.” Hammack has recorded more than 200 pieces (which can be downloaded from his Web site and has garnered national and international attention and acclaim. His commentaries are occasionally picked up for national radio distribution, bringing his voice to millions of listeners across the United States, and are even heard on Australian Public Radio. In addition, he’s won numerous awards, including last year’s ASEE President’s Award.

What may appear to be overnight success is actually grounded in years of hard work and preparation—a career’s worth of work, in fact. As Hammack tells it, that career in engineering began more as a fluke than from thorough planning. Typical of many engineers, Hammack was good at math and science as a kid. But he knew he didn’t want to be a scientist. Engineering had a kind of mystique for Hammack, which was largely fed by a neighbor of a childhood friend who lived near a lake. He was an engineer and “could do anything, it seemed, and we thought it was amazing,” Hammack says. That led Hammack to follow his older brother to Michigan Technological University, in Houghton, where he received his B.S. in chemical engineering.

Only later did he find out that the ingenious neighbor wasn’t really an engineer. He was a tractor salesman. By that time Hammack was long hooked on engineering and went on to earn his M.S. and Ph.D. in chemical engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 1988 he began teaching chemical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, where he stayed until moving back to Urbana-Champaign in 1997.

What brought Hammack back to his alma mater was his desire to pursue something different. “I had taught elsewhere and I came to this idea that we should have a professor who focuses on reaching out to the public, and that it should be done with mass media,” he explains. “So when I approached Illinois about it in mid- to late 90s, after some discussion they said, ‘Let’s give this a try and see what happens.’ ”

The Perfect Medium

Why radio? Simple pragmatism. Radio is relatively easy to break into without a lot of start-up costs. Radio can be done in small segments—in increments of minutes, not hours, as in television. And most important to Hammack, radio is an intellectual medium. That is, the only way to process the information is to listen. Having a captive, listening audience, even if they are occupied making breakfast or driving home from work, is an advantage in mass media.

Once he chose his medium, Hammack took several years to fully master it. For months he listened, stopwatch in hand, to Charles Osgood’s commentaries on CBS radio, timing how long Osgood took to make a point. He also studied the popular radio program “This American Life” to gain insight into storytelling.

Understanding the medium and using it to its greatest extent has really paid off for Hammack, who has a core audience of about 120,000 weekly Illinois Public Radio listeners. He points out the dangers of not understanding how a medium works, using presidential candidate Howard Dean’s ill-fated night in Iowa—what some have dubbed the “I Have a Scream” speech—as an example. “I think Dean got a real insight into how television works in terms of a hot and a cold medium. It may not be fair, but what works in a lecture hall doesn’t always work on a television set.”

Hammack’s preparation also included two years of voice lessons—not singing lessons, he emphasizes—but speaking lessons, in order to sound as conversational and natural as possible. The result is a friendly, easy-going voice with just a whiff of a Midwestern accent. It’s polished without being pedantic or even professorial. And though it falls in the classic range of a tenor, Hammack clearly isn’t on his way to sharing a stage with Placido Domingo anytime soon. Instead, his voice is perfect for his role as everyman engineer. That is, as his Web site points to, his role as the “engineer guy.”

His ability to tell a compelling story—to put a human face on engineering—has won Hammack a place in public radio. One of his favorite quotes is by G. K. Chesterton: “The only two things that satisfy the soul are a person and a story. And even a story must be about a person.” And his emphasis on the personal, on the face behind the technology—the Wallace Carothers and Gustave Eiffels of the world—enable listeners to connect to the world around them, and sometimes gain deeper understanding of the people in it. “I get E-mails from people who say my spouse, my uncle, my aunt, my father, my mother was an engineer and now I understand them. And these are people whom I really want to reach,” Hammack says.

He also generated a loyal following in a certain demographic that he never expected: third-graders. Like groupies, they come knocking on his door wanting an autograph or a CD of his commentaries. Why the draw? Hammack speculates that third-graders, in attempting to piece together their world, focus intently on the story he’s telling and are thereby able to make connections between objects and the people who create them. It’s a small window of opportunity, though. “No self-respecting fifth grader would listen to my commentaries,” Hammack says. “They are way beyond them at that point. First graders are too young. That leaves third graders, a few second graders, and a few fourth. In fact, some of the parents have come back to say that the kids listen compulsively to the CD to the point that the parents are sick of it!” Even so, given the choice between Bill Hammack and Barney—the exasperating, puerile purple dinosaur—Bill wins hands down.

“Engineering & Life” is more than just storytelling, though. Nor is it all fun and games. Hammack routinely addresses some of the most pressing and important issues of our time: terrorism, capital punishment, eroding civil liberties. A week after the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., Hammack weighed in with these thoughts: “The attack reveals the truth of the aphorism, Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral. It depends on the human at the controls. The attack should caution us from looking for some quick technological fix to the problems of terrorism. We want some ultrasensitive metal detector that will unmask any weapon, or some new X-ray machine that exposes all dangers. Yet, the only lasting solution will be a human one: At the basest level, an alert and thinking person at an airport, and at its deepest, agreement and understanding among peoples.”

In the end, Hammack brings the focus back to the personal, to the human level, pointing out that people, not technology, are at the controls, are the ones making decisions.

He also points to the importance of creating informed citizens. “In order to be a citizen—to vote, to participate—at some level you have to understand the things that you are voting on. Many issues today are technological, or if they aren’t, they involve technological questions,” he explains. “If we show that technology is the result of human invention, of human ingenuity, of human decision making—some good, some bad—then we can begin to approach this whole whirlwind and begin to break it down into something that we can vote on, decide on, use, apply, or not apply.”

Which begs the question: Why should engineers be engaged in creating citizens? “If we don’t do it,” Hammack argues, “who will?”

David Brindley is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.


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