Interview with an Engineer: Russ Watters

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This is a new Interview category for Insights. While I line up some great new interviews I’ll be migrating some previous mentor interviews.

Russ Watters is an engineering mentor for Physics Forums

Can you give us a brief bio?

I’m 37, I live outside of Philadelphia and I have a BS in Mechanical Engineering from Drexel University. I started school at the Naval Academy, but had a rough time as an Aerospace Engineer and got kicked out, after which (deferred to finish college) I spent 2 years enlisted in the Navy. After getting out of the Navy I just sort of fell into the first ME job I could find: HVAC engineering, and I’ve been doing it ever since (about 10 years).

What attracts you to your home city of Philadelphia?

I grew up outside of Philadelphia in two areas. Though my ties to the area are not that strong anymore, I like living close enough to the city to go out there even on a weekday, but far enough that I can see a lot with a telescope and not have to deal with all of the downsides of living in a city (traffic, crime, crowding, high living costs, etc.). And I like that we have four distinct seasons here.

Did you always want to be Mechanical Engineer?

I always wanted to be an Aerospace Engineer. My sister sent me a card while I was at the Naval Academy, which I still have, saying she remembered me launching model rockets at perhaps age 8 and stating then, with believable conviction, that I wanted to design/build/fly in them when grew up. I didn’t reach those goals unfortunately, but AE is a sub-discipline of ME and I do really like what I’m doing now. And given the current climate, I’m not sure AE and the space program have a great future anyway. At my age, had I been able to stay along the path I was on (Naval Academy->fighter pilot->test pilot->astronaut), I’d probably be trying to join the space program right about now, just following the cancellation of the shuttle program!

How did you get into your hobby of astrophotography?

Isn’t it obvious? Every kid is fascinated with space, my fascination was just slightly more serious. For me it is clearly genetic: my uneducated farmer grandfather was
interested enough in it that his kids bought him a beginners’ telescope when he was in his 40s or 50s, in the 1960s or 70s. He had the brain of a scientist and I’m sure I got that from him. I don’t think he used his telescope much until I got ahold of it though, as we kept it in its original box, in its original plastic bags. But I showed him the sights with it when I was a teenager! When I got established as an adult, getting a quality telescope setup was a major priority; third after a car and a house, and I bought it a couple of months after moving into my house.


Horsehead/Flame nebulas in Orion

Where are some of your favorite night sky objects to photograph?

Everyone’s favorite galaxy: M51.

Looks old and low-quality after 4 years, so I need to revisit it. After that, probably Jupiter since it is big and bright and easy to get great pictures. My best is probably a big picture of the Horsehead/Flame nebulas in Orion though:

[need to update the website – it has been a couple of years]

Do you have a favorite thread at PF?

Selfish, but it’s my “YOU!!: Fix the US Energy Crisis” thread:

Energy is the lifeblood of modern civilization and so is probably the most important issue we ever face as a society. We often take it for granted, but it doesn’t just happen on its own. It is an incredibly important, complex and human resource consuming issue. And recent developments are as exciting as they are under-reported. The shale oil/gas boom is little short of a complete game-changer in the US and perhaps the world energy situation. First, we blew-off the Kyoto protocol, yet suddenly and accidentally have exceeded its demands on us. Now, if current projections hold, the US will become the new Middle East in 15 or 20 years and the old Middle East will melt into the sand. It could be the defining geopolitical happening of the first half of the 21st century. When I started the thread 9 years ago, that side of the issue was still years away from coming to light!

How is PF different since the time when you became a Mentor?

Its huge! But the thing that strikes me most about PF is not what has changed, but what hasn’t. My perception is that PF, from the start, was intended to be a quality place to discuss science. That commitment has shaped PF’s development, most notably with the initial relegation of crackpottery to the accidentally ironic “Independent Research” forum to its eventual elimination. If memory serves, I joined PF in 2002 while still in the Navy, but didn’t become very active until I left the Navy and moved out of my parents’ house in early 2003. (I remember being annoyed that the 2.0 reboot reset my postcount!). Having dabbled in politics and science chat rooms in college, I immediately recognized PF as a relatively BS-free zone where while having a few crackpots, kept them on a tight leash from the start. I do enjoy the occasional entertainment of crackpots, but boy does that get old fast! Quality discussion is why I’m here and PF has evolved to refine that model and increase the quality as it has matured.

What would you say is your favorite engineering marvel and why?

This is the only question I’m having a tough time with. It isn’t because I don’t know of any, it is because there are too many to list. But I’m also a history buff in a personal, put-myself-in-that-position kind of way. So I envy my parents and grandparents at having been able to witness the genesis of the space program, but overall the age we live in today is far more exciting. PCs, the internet, HDTV, smart phones – these aren’t merely fun consumer electronics, they have completely changed how we spend the majority of our time in our daily lives in a short span of 15 years. (Heh – 10 years ago it was a pain in the butt to take photos of a construction site because you have to get them developed. Now I don’t even need to bother with a stand-alone camera most of the time!) But along the same lines (and again, provincial, I know), consider how your life would be different without HVAC and a refrigerator. 200 years ago, keeping a fire going in winter was a matter of life and death. Today, my car has two zones of climate control! From a matter of survival to utterly mundane: it is that kind of transition that I find truly awesome.

Fun history: Ben Franklin discovered some of the science behind refrigeration before the revolutionary war and said “From this experiment one may see the possibility of freezing a man to death on a warm summer’s day.” And a Florida doctor built the first modern refrigeration unit (an ice machine) in 1851(!), but due to funding issues never reached his goal of an air conditioned hospital. 1851! Unfortunately the technology died with him and didn’t re-surface until the turn of the [20th] century.

Thanks for participating Russ!


21 replies
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  1. OmCheeto
    OmCheeto says:

    Wow, Russ is much more interesting than I am!

    Wow is an understatement.

    It should be more like; [U][SIZE=”7″]WOW!!![/SIZE][/U]

    In my brief 5 years at PF, I don’t think Russ and I have agreed on anything. Yet, we seem to have a lot in common.

    We even have the same favorite thread!

  2. russ_watters
    russ_watters says:

    Thanks guys – and Greg, you promised you wouldn’t bring that up! Seriously though, I’m not shy about discussing myself, good things or bad, so if anyone has anything else they want to know, just ask. I use my real name partly because I don’t care much for anonymity.

  3. OmCheeto
    OmCheeto says:

    … if anyone has anything else they want to know, just ask…..


    Why do we never seem to agree on anything?

    Is it a Left vs Right Coast kind of thing?

    I just finished skimming through our favorite thread, and don’t remember seeing you yell at me. Is that your way of agreeing with someone?

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