Thursday, December 27, 2007

My Mom – a Chemical Engineer

That day I woke up a little earlier than usual. I must have been 20 years of age then. Like any other day I went to the kitchen to fetch my cup of coffee. Since I had woken up, early mom was still preparing it. She had put the water to boil and to it she was adding beans of coffee while carefully controlling the flame of the stove. I was surprised to see the water turn brownish black as the coffee beans were added to it. I thought to myself, was she aware of “Diffusion” phenomena? It was very unlikely that she might even have heard of it. Yet, she always made wonderful coffee. I kept watching her as she reached out for a towel that we regularly used to filter the coffee. What followed was “Filtration” there. She poured coffee in two glasses after which she stopped to remove the cake from the towel. Was she aware of the thickness of the cake, and how the pressure drop created by it will affect the filtration? She somehow seemed to know it all, rather magically, and threw out the cake and started to filter again.

On the same day for breakfast we had one of the specialties of South Indian cooking, “Idli”. It somehow wasn’t as soft as on most other days. I kept rattling my brain, trying to figure out the reason. What she told me however, was very interesting. She said that she had forgotten to switch of the grinder after 30 minutes, leaving it on for a couple of extra minutes. She was not familiar with the “Time of grinding” and the “Size Reduction” fundamentals, but somehow she was using it out of pure intuition.

For lunch, she was preparing rice. For this, she was using a pressure cooker. I asked her why not to use a vessel in which we normally cook rice to which she replied that a pressure cooker cooks rice faster than the vessel since steam is trapped inside the vessel. The basics of “Isochoric Thermodynamics” which took place inside the pressure cooker due to the presence of “Saturated Steam” were not known to her.

Those were summer days and sun was in its full glory when I expressed my desire for a glass of water. She gave me a cup of water that was quite chilled. It made me wonder how that was possible on such a day, that too without a refrigerator. The reason, it turned out to be, was the storing of water in an earthen pot. But she didn’t know anything about the “Porosity” factor which makes the pot behave like a “Refrigerator” or the fundamental principle behind it which keeps the water cool and still she was applying the principles so effectively.

Once again it was time for the evening coffee, however by this time, in my opinion, I had developed enough understanding of the process and I asked her to allow me to make coffee for everybody, including some guests. I was eager to make coffee since I wanted to apply the newly learnt principles (or at least I thought I had learnt them). Two other reasons prompted me. One was my love for coffee and the other was my passion for cooking. I began by heating milk but I thought of boiling it faster and increased the flame intensity to its maximum. Mom, out of curiosity, came to see my progress. She scolded me for setting the flame so intense and told me that milk should be heated gently so as not to spoil it. Yet again, she didn’t know that it was called “Pasteurization”.

That night during dinner she told us that we will have “Dosa” the next morning. I asked her, “ If we are going to use the same dough we used today, then how will we get a Dosa and not Idli?”. She gently replied that the dough will turn sour when kept overnight and it will become good for Dosa and not idli. She also added that she had mixed the dough with her hands so that it will turn sour faster. The process of “Fermentation” it was, taking place because of the “Enzymes” present in her hand.

My mom wasn’t a Chemical Engineer. She wasn’t even aware of the fundamentals of Thermodynamics or Chemical Technology. But she was capable of carrying out effective Heat Transfer and Mass Transfer. And now, after some years have passed by and I have gained a badge of a Chemical Engineer, I look at her assured of the fact that I may be a more learned Chemical Engineer as compared to her but she achieved all this effectively by only thinking of the logics of it and not the techniques. This in fact aroused a feeling pride in me for having become a Chemical Engineer.

As an Engineer we all are supposed to first look at the logics of the things and then in to the techniques, which we very often fail to do. So before going in to the deep technical analysis we should think of it logically and most probably we will find a solution for it. It has been Happy Chemical Engineering from then on!


Raj said...

Wow !! You are like the tiger wooeds of Chemistry .. Precion understanding of the chemical processes and real-world dynamics so related to it !!

I appreciate this down-to-earth perspective of a Chemical engineer.. 'coz most ppl with an engineering thought process find it hard to break down such complex processes to a simple to understand & layman simplicity.

Kudos !!

Great Work !!

selva said...

something related to Eureka simple science experiments. Understanding the logics and explaining people to understand through simple things they come across in a day to day life. Not bothered about the equations and stuffs. This may enable people to understand other perspections of engineering.

deepika said...

selva..this post inspired me to think and act beyond the lines...if i ever get back to teaching science in schools i'll definetly make attempts to make science learning more n more experiential and experimental!!!...
will come to you for more such ideas.... do help me :)

selva ganapathy said...

you are most welcome Deepika

தமிழ் தாசன் said...

Good one!!!!!!!!

selva ganapathy said...

thanks suresh!