It’s all because of Rajeev Bajaj, a 39-year-old chemical engineer from Fremont, Calif., who is either going to become the def jammer of the science and technology domain or the poster boy for excruciatingly embarrassing nerdiness.
Bajaj recently spent $15,000 of his own money forming an independent record label and hiring musicians to perform four rap and hip-hop songs he wrote in praise of the engineering profession. He hopes his debut album, Geek Rhythms, will convince America that engineers indeed are cool.
Success is not to be measured by recouping his costs, Bajaj said, nor by selling out of the 1,000 CDs he produced. Bajaj is more interested in luring high school students into technical fields with lyrics like:
"I made the calculator and computer, too,
"’cause math is not something everybody can do...
"I am an engineer.br> "Respect my mind.
"So bow down when u see me downtown."
A former co-worker from Bajaj’s days at Motorola exudes in an Amazon.com review that this is "the best thing to happen to geeks since Bill Gates."
Perhaps. At least it’s a step in the right direction, experts say.
"Trying to put a different face on engineering is very important," said Leann Yoder, executive director of The Junior Engineering Technical Society.
The nonprofit organization, based in Alexandria, Va., is concerned fewer engineering students are graduating from college each year despite the rising number of jobs requiring engineering skills.
The stereotype of smart, socially inept engineers is a topic that often surfaces in educational outreach circles. What’s needed, Yoder said, is a way to reach the masses.
Being brainy was nothing to be embarrassed about when Bajaj was growing up in India. He said it wasn’t until he immigrated to the United States in the ’90s to earn his master’s and doctorate degrees in chemical engineering that he "found out that engineers are geeks and social misfits."
Still, he didn’t really care. His wife and two young daughters adored him. Priyanka, now 7, drew him pictures of all the things she wanted to build: space buses and shrink-ray guns like the one in the movie Honey, I Shrunk The Kids. That’s when it hit him.
"I started to deal with the fact that my kids were going to go to school here," said Bajaj, chief executive of SemiQuest, a Fremont, Calif., start-up that’s designing a new way to polish silicon wafers.
"I want their ambition or their desire to not get filtered by the high school experience of what the biases are. I would like them to feel cool about whatever they’re doing."
So a year ago, this unflinchingly formal man embarked on his musical mission to show that "geeks do know how to have fun." He penned pulsating poetry about algorithms and entropy, conductivity and the Carnot cycle – an idealized reversible thermodynamic cycle, in case you were wondering.
Then, like almost everything else these days, the recording work was offshored to India, where Bajaj observed more of an overlap of engineering and musical interests. He found a college freshman majoring in electrical engineering who perfectly fit the part of lead singer and hired a band that had performed at music festivals sponsored by several of India’s engineering colleges.
The album consists of four songs: "Free Energy" is an electronica rap explaining chemical engineering principles; "Geek Dreams" glorifies engineers with a tune reminiscent of a cartoon soundtrack; "Enjoy The Ride" is a techno track about computer geeks (and the only song in which Bajaj joins in on vocals); and "Metamorphosis" is a high-energy, hip-hop look at the mastery of mechanical engineers.
Bajaj also included instrumental versions of each song on the album so enthusiasts can look up the lyrics on his Web site (www.rlpkrecords.com) and sing karaoke.
Bajaj’s brainchild has captivated a cluster of intellectual listeners.
About 500 CDs have been purchased online since the October release. Stanford University’s KZSU radio station has played "Enjoy The Ride." And a chemical engineering professor in New York has loaded the entire album onto his iPod.
"I want to play it for my students," said Professor B. Wayne Bequette, who teaches a course on feedback control principles – which are spelled out in one of the raps – to juniors at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. "I certainly want to play it at graduation."
© 2005, San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.). Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.