Is your brain made up of square or round cells?

By Greg Turnquist

Greg L. Turnquist worked on the Spring team for over thirteen years and is a senior staff technical content engineer at Cockroach Labs. He was the lead for Spring Data JPA and Spring Web Services. He wrote Packt's best-selling title, Learning Spring Boot 2.0 2nd Edition, and its 3rd Edition follow-up along many others.

July 26, 2013

I’m an engineer. Both of my brothers are engineers. My dad was an engineering professor until he retired. One of his brothers was an engineering professor. My two cousins are engineers as well. Bottom line: I know everything about the engineering way of life and and engineer’s mentality.

Or so I thought.

I met the woman of my dreams six years ago, and we got married a year later. She is a scientist. From the get go, I knew we were perfect together. But I didn’t really know what a scientist was. I figured we must be relatively compatible. And we are in many ways. But it took dating a scientist to discover what an engineer was. Because they’re different. (I also didn’t know how bad my own memory was until I met someone with perfect memory.)

My wife doesn’t understand how I can add up a stack of numbers together in my head. Or how I can do a back-of-the-envelope estimate on financial growth without finding an HP-12C. She also doesn’t understand why I can hear a math equation or law of physics once and never forget it. How in the world can I tap these keys on my laptop and make a web site magically produce “42”. (And she doesn’t get “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”!)

I don’t understand how she can track every variant of Gibb’s Free Energy equation. I once knew a bunch, but I think my chemistry professor showed me one too many, and I lost them all. Poof! I also don’t understand how she can visualize genetic solutions. One thing she loved was organic chemistry. I don’t understand how she can remember all those formulas, rules, and exceptions. And it’s the exceptions that count! She had a professor that once gave a lecture with about two seconds pause on each slide. Saying little more than “yep” followed by clicking to the next slide. For material not in the textbook. That wasn’t handed out as a supplement. That appeared on a final. Yikes!

When it comes to chemistry, she told me they’re essentially making it all up. She had to memorize who knows how many exceptions, but clearly indicated they haven’t found them all. When I realized that we haven’t licked quantum physics, and hence been able to predict the behaviors of chemistry, I think I saw an intersection of what she and I know!

Over time as we have grown closer to together, we finally figured it out. My brain cells are square and hers are round. The stuff she knows doesn’t fit in my brain and vice versa! Information has different shapes and is simply impossible for any one person to know. I believe this is the way God intended things to be. Sort of humbling really.

I thought of this fact as I was checking links from my twitter minions this morning and reading about dark patterns for the first time. I noticed that a lot of my current knowledge, assumptions, and skill is steered by picking up the smallest bits of info posted more often in social channels than read in books.

As I write technical material at work for some of our software products, our editor sometimes asks, “where did you get that?” I pause and think, because I didn’t read it in one place. Instead I heard it mentioned in a few podcasts, read some links over the past couple years mentioning it, and saw parts of it on a wikipedia article. I collated it in my mind and wrote it down to quickly bring some other developer up to speed. Noticing that none of these channels was available sixteen years ago makes me wonder how the heck I survived back then!


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