The nuclear option

October 1, 2018

Sixty years ago, Charles Koch earned his first post-graduate degree from MIT — a master’s in nuclear engineering.

“Back then, nuclear power was fairly new, and I thought it had the potential to create some entrepreneurial opportunities,” Koch recalled. “So I signed up.”

Koch’s coursework began his senior year. As part of the curriculum, he took advanced courses in calculus, thermodynamics and nuclear physics.

“A lot of the calculus was unintelligible for me. It was integral calculus with continuities, which is impenetrable compared to differential calculus.

“I struggled with other aspects of the material, especially nuclear engineering, where the theory didn’t fit the data, so they used bugger factors to make the equations work.”

WELCOME TO OAK RIDGE

Koch’s spring semester was spent at MIT’s engineering practice school at the Atomic Energy Commission’s nuclear production and research facility in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a 60,000-acre campus built during World War II.

“I am now on my second problem out of the six we do during the term,” wrote Koch to his parents in March 1958. “Much of the work is classified so I can only discuss it in generalities.

“My first problem was the design and testing of a certain sort of hot wire and probe. The second has to do with some calculations on one of the research reactors down here.”

Koch was excited to work with an IBM 704 computer at Oak Ridge. The 704, which relied on vacuum tube circuitry, was the first mass-produced computer capable of large-scale, high-speed mathematic calculations.

NOT SO HOT

Charles Koch learned at least two important things during his time studying nuclear engineering.

First, because of strict government involvement and oversight, he realized that nuclear power was unlikely to present as many opportunities as he had hoped.

Second, and much more important for him personally, was the realization that he was better at dealing with some concepts and kinds of math than others.

“After I left MIT, I got a job at a consulting firm. During that time, I read a textbook on accounting and took an MIT course in finance. Those concepts were much more obvious and natural to me.

“I now know that I’m a lousy engineer — even though I have three engineering degrees.” (Whenever anything breaks at the Koch’s house, it’s usually Charles’ wife, Liz, who fixes it.)

But Koch insists that his difficult year at MIT was important, “because it really taught me best how to develop my aptitudes.

“To become self-actualized and eventually fulfilled, we all need work that stretches us and continually challenges us — but not so difficult that it’s impossible to accomplish and demoralizes us.”