Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Why I Majored in MSE

Ultimately, I probably ended up majoring in MSE because of noise induced hearing loss.

To back up a bit, my first instrument was the flute. As a fairly good flautist, I was occasionally asked to play piccolo. The problem with piccolos is that they are very high, very loud, and about four inches from your right ear. So when I started noticing that I only heard fire alarms in my left, I realized I should probably quit the piccolo, and took up french horn instead.

My parents were less than thrilled about buying me another instrument, so we compromised, and I got a budget that was the difference between my sisters violin and my flute. This was not a large number, so to eBay I went. The horn I ended up getting was a cheaper Chinese knock-off, but it had a lovely tone quality, even if the fingerings were all in the wrong key... However, after about a year, it started developing what is called "red rot", or dezincification, where the zinc leeches out of the brass alloy due to galvanic corrosion, leaving behind a porous copper matrix.  The galvanic corrosion was caused by poor manufacturing, where the insides of the tuning slides had been silver plated. When you added a conductive liquid (i.e., spit), a potential gradient forms, and the zinc preferentially oxides, leaving a white powdery substance on the slides (now... try explaining this one to airport security!)

In learning what the physical process of red rot was, I discovered the field of materials science, which encompassed most of the things I had already been interested in, but thought were called chemical engineering. I applied to colleges with the intent of studying metallurgy and acoustics, but soon discovered the incredible breadth of options under the MSE umbrella.

Materials science: because everything is made of something.

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