Sunday, December 27, 2015

On The Importance of Tinkering

I recently read an article detailing how new hires at NASA's JPL lack a certain can-do problem solving ability that was evident in the older generation. Despite hiring the best and brightest from MIT and other ivy league schools, they were unable to solve novel problems that are encountered in the type of work that NASA does. Upon digging into their pasts it appears that most of this generation has never tinkered. Contrasted with the older generation who grew up taking things apart to see how they worked. The article laments that tinkerers are hard to find in today's up and coming generation.

I propose that the reason is rather simple: Modern devices are too complicated. We live in a day when every little thing imaginable has a microchip embedded in it. Inside that microchip are thousands of transistors, resisters, diodes, capacitors etc that make up all electronics. However, the modern microcontroller has taken over the function of these larger components and is effectively, a black box. When I was a kid, we would go down to the thrift store and pick up a load of old stereo systems and hack them apart for their components. We would then (try to) use these components to build various projects. These stereo systems were made up of discrete components that you could easily trace the circuits from. In fact, most of the cabinets contained a schematic diagram for repair shops to use. Today's young curious minds would have a hard time replicating our experiences. Open even the simplest electronic do-dad (if you can without busting it) and see if you can tell what anything does. All the discrete components are gone, replace by a single microcontroller with a swath of other miniature components that require specialized equipment to remove from the circuit board and would be pretty useless in a hobby project. Today, you can buy a plethora of small electronic kits to build anything from radios to glowing ties, but again, most of the components are pre packaged in a chip where the guts of the device are abstracted from the builder. It is kind of like ordering a Lego set where it is preassembled and actually is really just one big premoulded piece. All you need to do is add a couple of skids and attach the windows and boom, working helicopter.

Nowadays if you want to understand how anything works, you have to get a degree in advanced signal processing, electronics engineering, and manufacturing, and even then you only have a theoretical background. I miss the days when I could go to my local Radio Shack and pick up a 22k ohm resister and a spool of wire. You will be hard pressed to find any store that carries such things in your city, let alone neighborhood today.

The worst part is trying to get my kids to take interest in tinkering. They are perfectly satisfied with the black  box experience. They have complete faith in their electronic gizmos and never question how they work. I fear that in a generation or two, there will be no one left to build the next space ship because they will expect to be able to push a button and have it done for them.