Wednesday, 1 April 2015

I wasn't expecting that

There we go.


Two full mornings of training five Chinese engineers completed. I say five, but most of the time it was four, as one of them only swanned in half way through the morning each day and then sat at the back looking bored and slightly grumpy. Not really sure what that was all about, other than an excellent technique for disconcerting me. I mean, he was staying in the same hotel as the others, and they got a taxi to come here in the morning, and nobody made any comment at all about his absence or subsequent mysterious arrival. Maybe he's their minder from the Chinese government? Who knows.

I introduced myself, handed round my business cards, and... that was it. I still don't know all their names. There's Una, who's the one who speaks good English, and acts as translator for the tricky questions. And there's Dr Hu, and I have to try very hard not to say "Allons-y!" to him or indeed grin when I say his name. The others I merely know as Delinquent-Arrival-Man, Little-Man and Round-Man.

The lectures I've given have been... different. For a start, there's been a video camera pointed at me the whole time, plus occasional photos taken at random moments, for no obvious reason. They even took a photo of me eating my lunch. I'm beginning to feel a bit like that cute little tamarin in the zoo, being photographed no matter what I do. While I'm lecturing, sometimes my students are tapping away at their phones, or on their laptops. To be fair, I think they're taking notes on their laptops. I'm not so sure it isn't Candy Crush on the phones. I'll talk for a while, with slides up on the projector and then suddenly there'll be an animated interjection in Mandarin (or perhaps it's Cantonese, I can't honestly say I'd know the difference). Una will then gesticulate, write and hector the others, presumably explaining the points I've just been making. The others will, I think, disagree on some issue, and Una will respond. Maybe she's just telling them to stop playing Candy Crush. After a few minutes of excitable exchanges, Una then turns to me with a delightful smile and says "Please carry on". So I do.

Sometimes the stumbling block is a single word:

Una: what is biwt?
PB: built?
Una: yes, biwt
PB Built... erm... made, constructed, formed, machined, put together, assembled... <runs out of off-the-cuff synonyms>
Una: how do you spell?
PB: <writes "built" down>
Una: Ah! biwt!

Now, I'm not being critical at all of their ability to understand English, they're frankly doing a pretty impressive job at following anything across such a massive language barrier. But you can imagine it's hard to describe the technical details of a mass spectrometer when you can easily get stuck on a simple word like "built". I have severe doubts about whether they understood what I was talking about when it's things like the ageing effect of electron bombardment on the secondary electron coefficient of the surface of an ion detector.

Ah, you're thinking, but technical language is what crosses cultural and language barriers. Science is the new lingua franca, you may be thinking. Just because they don't understand some English words, they'll be right at home with electrostatic potentials and poisson distributions, you could contend. Maybe you're not thinking those things, but I was kind of hoping them. However... after two and a half hours of lecture, practical demonstration, diagnostic tests and studying schematics for an ion detector and high-speed, small-signal pre-amplifier, I asked if there were any further questions about what I'd taught them. They asked "what material is the lid of the box made from?". Seriously? You've just been shown how to capture single ions arriving on an oscilloscope and the only thing you ask is what the lid is made from? And they all wrote the answer down in their notebooks. (It was stainless steel by the way. I promise that's completely useless information.)

The next question initially seemed as if it was going to be a bit better. Little-Man produced a draft copy of the user manual and waved it at me and asked if I could show him one of the procedures in it. I looked at it. It was the procedure I had just shown them. So, we did it again, with much nodding and concurring. Exactly the same nodding and concurring as far as I could tell as I had received the first time round. How the hell I'm supposed to know if they've understood is a mystery to me. I keep asking them if they're happy, if they're following it, if there's anything they want to know. What more can I do?

More alarming were the bits of pure science we got hung up on. These people are intending to develop applications for this mass spectrometer, so we were rather naively hoping they'd know a bit about chemistry and masses of molecules. First my colleague and then I got rather bogged down in explaining what an isotope is. Now, with apologies to the non-scientists who may be reading this, but what?! I mean, really, what?! You want to develop mass spectrometry applications and you don't know what an isotope is? You actually think the mass of chlorine is 35.5 Daltons? I promise you, you will never see a peak at 35.5 Da. You'll see a peak at 35 Da and one at 37 Da, and the one at 35 Da will be three times the size of the one at 37 Da. On average the mass of chlorine may be 35.5 Da, but any one atom is either 35 Da or 37 Da. You don't have half a neutron swanning around in a chlorine nucleus. I am still boggled in the mind to find that they didn't understand about isotopes. Isn't that GCSE Chemistry?

Once I'd got into the swing of this method of presenting - talk, interrupt, private discussion, resume - I chilled out completely. For one thing, I became instantly and reassuringly confident that I knew infinitely more than my students about what I was saying. For another thing, I knew they weren't going to spring any subtle and awkward questions on me, as I was going to be lucky if they grasped the basics and never mind the subtlety.

And I developed a Someone Else's Problem Field about that damned video camera. My mind just glances off the fact that they are taking videos back with them to review and study and pore over and learn from and... oh shit, what did I say that they're going to come back and ask me about? Quick, mind, start glancing off that thought again!

And I'm definitely not going to think about the possibility of them using videos of me as training material for other engineers once they get back home.. I think I might be feeling a little queasy now...

Not half as queasy as they're going to get watching the videos though. There was one point where I was demonstrating how to make some measurements on the top of this 1.6m tall instrument. I'm not tall enough to do it without a step, and neither are they. So I stood on the step to put the probes in place, then invited them to take turns stepping up and looking. Seems fair, yes? Would have been a lot easier without Little-Man holding the end of his tripod so he could wave the video camera in the air by my head to film what I was doing, and Round-Man sticking his iPhone in to take photographs of what I was doing. If that video doesn't induce sea-sickness and bewilderment, I don't know what will.

So, somewhat as my rational mind predicted, the training was fine. I didn't say anything stupid, nobody put me on the spot in a way I couldn't handle, I'd prepared all the material in time, I didn't break out in a cold sweat. All good really. Apart from the nagging sense that I've completely and utterly wasted my time and the poor buggers don't really have a clue what on earth I was blethering on about...

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