Bruce Easom, MIT PhD, Trusts ‘Wisdom of Crowds’
by Jack Petropoulos
Bruce Easom is a quiet and reserved man. Unless you knew him, you would not likely pick him out of a crowd. In fact, your paths would not likely cross here in Groton unless perhaps, you had cause to go before the ZBA, appreciated a project funded by the Community Preservation Act, were struck by the contribution of Open Space to the character of our town, had a project to do within 100 feet of wetlands, or flicked a light switch at your home.
And, despite all that he does, you would be forgiven for not having noticed him, unless you had a chance to hear him speak. Few who have done so have come away unimpressed.
Bruce grew up in the San Francisco Bay area where his dad was in the army. At 15 his family packed it in, sailing their 50’ boat south through the Panama Canal, north and then east to the Windward and Leeward Islands where he met a family from the UK that was doing the same thing.
He jumped ship to sail with them to the St Vincents and Grenadines in time for his 16th birthday. He stayed in their company and eventually landed in Poole England on the 4th of July where he enrolled in a private school, if for no other reason than that it was just what was expected.
School had never really inspired Bruce, and he typically did only what was necessary to get by. His grades in Math and Science were barely better than his D’s in French and Handwriting. He cannot really say if he formally graduated from High School or not, but he took is “O” (for ordinary) level exams that qualified him to go on to college.
Bruce describes himself, then and now, as a bit of a nerd. He was always an outsider, but credits that unconventional background with allowing him, and kids like him, to not be trapped in, and shaped by, the social pressures of having to ‘fit in’.
He returned to the US to live with his family that had settled in Florida, and enrolled in Broward Community College. He eventually received an appointment to the Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point NY, having secured an endorsement from the Honorable US Congressman J. Herbert Burke.
A grin comes to his face as he recalls the irony of the fact that the ‘honorable’ Congressman whose character endorsement was so influential, was later convicted of disorderly intoxication, resisting arrest and witness tampering.
After two years at the Academy including 2 six-month deployments at sea, he graduated with a Bachelor of Science and 2 Coast Guard licenses (Third Mate for Oceans, Unlimited Tonnage and Third Assistant Engineer for Steam and Motor Vessels of Unlimited Power), and went on to work for Exxon as an Assistant Engineer.
Somewhere between Poole and Exxon Bruce lost his aversion to formal education and took a leave of absence from Exxon to attend MIT for a Masters in Ocean Engineering. Over the next few years he bounced back and forth between MIT and Exxon and ended up with 2 master’s degrees (Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering, and Master of Science in Mechanical Engineering). No longer ‘uninspired’ he went on to a PhD program with funding from the Department of Energy, he received his PhD having worked on solving the problem of water hammers in submarines.
Today Bruce is leading a team of process design engineers in a project to help to start up a metals recycling plant in Freeport, Texas. The plant will process 125 tons per day of hazardous waste from the petrochemical industry, returning the recovered nickel, cobalt, molybdenum and vanadium for reuse by the steel industry. He is the project manager leading the team of process design engineers.
Bruce noted that, among many remarkable experiences he had at MIT, he was most struck by the exams, which were structured around requiring PhD students to solve problems that they have never seen before. The classic reaction tended to be: “What? This has nothing to do with what we learned!”. But he says that the value of that approach is that it reflects what the real-world of engineering is all about.
The focus is on challenging the candidate to come up with a solution to a problem that they have never seen before, and for which they are prepared only by virtue of the way they have come to think.
Perhaps it was his focus on engineering and the experience of achieving successful outcomes to challenging problems that has led Bruce to have evolved into a pragmatist who loves a challenge and has a passion for facts. He is not shy about drawing a line between this approach to life and its impact on religious beliefs for he, and the roughly 93% of people of similar background, who conclude themselves to be atheists.
In spite of his appreciation for data and methodical decision-making, he has learned to appreciate the work of those who are less driven by data. His pragmatic approach is summed up in one of his favorite sayings: “The persuasive power of facts is overrated”.
Bruce has a complicated professional life, working as part of a small and fluid team that takes on difficult engineering projects, often in the energy sector. For some it is a marvel that he has the time for the many community initiatives that he is involved with, yet somehow, he finds these roles both challenging and rewarding.
While Bruce admits that these roles are a ‘stretch’ for him, given his nature, he is hard pressed to think of any of them that he would give up in exchange for another opportunity. His community involvement appears to be the outcome of some rather considered convictions. Rather than believing that public servants should be cut some slack in return for all they give, he holds that they should be thanked for their contributions all the while holding them to the highest standards for behavior and effectiveness. He cautions against the easily self-held sense of virtuousness that comes to some, and offers examples of the boundaries that he believes are absolute and the times in Groton and elsewhere he has seen them crossed. He praises local news organizations for their role in keeping public servants like himself accountable.
Bruce is a keen observer of public impression and is often struck by the perception that government is cynical and wasteful. While he understands the beliefs, he does not share them. Instead he encourages those who hold them to take the time to volunteer for a place on a committee and to see if a more hands on experience would affect their perception.
At the end of the day, as a matter of faith in both people and numbers, Bruce is a believer in the Wisdom of the Crowds. He does what he can to influence as he is able, but in the end, he sees his community as having the ability to, on balance, choose the right course.