Thoughts by Richard Bleil
Professors have to walk several fine lines, such as between encouragement and knowledge, and between access and safety. I’ve written in the past about my role as a professor at clearing the campus science building of bombs simply because I am single, but as a professor there were other iffy situations in which I found myself as well.
Professors don’t work normal hour jobs. In fact, when I had a “normal” full-time job, I felt odd because, to me, it felt like the work week was too short. It wasn’t uncommon for me to work sixty to eighty hours a week, routinely. Well, except for summers. On summers I took a lot of time off. Because I wasn’t teaching, there was little to keep me bound to my office, but I have to admit, there were still things that brought me into the office on occasion.
One day I did find myself on campus doing something in preparation for the next year, but I really don’t recall what it was. The campus was more or less deserted. The day was comfortably warm, and I know I was enjoying my task knowing there was no immediate deadline for completion. That’s when he walked in.
A rather odd man decided to come to the science building on campus to seek a professor’s input. Something about him immediately put me on edge. He plopped down on the couch in my office and struck up a conversation with me. Well, of course, I was representing the university and, as such, was of course open and friendly. He then told me the purpose of his visit.
Add suspenseful music here.
He had an idea for a perpetual motion machine. Well, so did Leonardo da Vinci, but those didn’t work out either. But I listened to him as he laid out what he was willing to share of his plan, keeping some back for fear that I would steal his idea. I listened, patiently, and politely, for him to finish.
The first law of thermodynamics tells us that, if we are not using a system for extracting work or energy, a perpetual motion machine should be possible. The second law of thermodynamics tells us that perpetual motion machines are not possible whether or not we are extracting work or energy out of it. Basically, the first law says that the best we can hope for is to break even, but it’s the second law that says no, not even that.
But who knows? Maybe my strange visitor had that one idea that would break down the laws of thermodynamics, and how cool and exciting would that be? After all, these laws are based on the fact that, to date, nobody has found an exception, so maybe he’s the one. But it’s unlikely. As time goes on, and more and more people try to find these exceptions, the idea that this man can out think all great thinkers before him seems unlikely. So now I was in an odd position of trying to keep him from getting his hopes up too high, while not squelching his creativity and desire to try. We ended up with a long conversation of the laws of thermodynamics, and what it meant. Most perpetual motion machines fail because of the energy required to overcome friction. Leonardo’s machine failed because of potential energy, so there are exceptions.
But there was something else about him. I just felt relieved when he left without incident. A few days later, I realized that there was no incident because I was too old.
A news story had come up about a man bought a house that was close to an elementary school. I’m sure that you realize that the problem is that he is a registered sexual predator and pedophile. I forget the technicality that let him get away with it (perhaps the house was just on the edge of his legally imposed distance from the school), but sure enough, when the interviewed the man, it was my perpetual motion visitor. They interviewed him and his wife who, of course, was defending his honor and looked, well, she looked off as well. I think I would have felt equally uncomfortable had she visited, or even the two of them together.
Of course, I’d seen neither of them since, but it was an interesting lesson on the prevalence of pedophiles and sexual predators in our society. In fact, my ex-wife left me for one. Obviously, these days I don’t get visitors nearly as often, but just writing this has bothered me to the point that even as I wrap up the post, I’ve gotten my little handgun I bought for self-defense as I sit alone in my dark office in my secured house. I don’t teach anymore, but I think of my many friends who do, and truly hope that they are careful and stay safe.