"Engineering is not the handmaiden of physics any more than medicine is of biology" What…
John Partridge is the founder of the deap-sea instrumentation company Sonardyne, and also graduated from the University of Bristol, my alma mater, with a degree in Mechanical Engineering in 1962. Since the founding in 1971, Sonardyne has developed into one of the leading instrumentation companies in oceanography, oil drilling, underwater monitoring and tsunami warning systems.
During my PhD graduation ceremony last week John Partridge received an honorary doctorate in engineering for his contributions to the field. His acceptance speech was shorter than most but packed a punch. Among others, he discussed the current state of engineering progress, the three essential characteristics an engineer should possess and his interests in engineering education.
The last topic is one close to my heart and one of the reasons this blog exists at all. I have transcribed Dr Partridge’s speech and you can find the full copy here, or alternatively listen to the speech here. What follows are excerpts from his speech that I found particularly interesting with some additional commentary on my part. All credit is due to Dr Partridge and any errors in transcribing are my own.
Straight off the bat Dr Partridge reminds us of the key skills required in engineering, namely inventiveness, mathematical analysis and decision making:
Now I am going to get a bit serious about engineering education. According to John R. Dixon, a writer on engineering education, the key skills required in engineering are inventiveness, analysis and decision making. Very few people have all three of Dickson’s specified skills, which is why engineering is best done as a group activity, and it is why I am totally indebted to my engineering colleagues in Sonardyne, particularly in compensating for my poor skills at mathematical analysis. Some of my colleagues joined Sonardyne straight from university and stayed until their retirement. But the really difficult part of running a business is decision making, which applies at all stages and covers a wide variety of subjects: technical, commercial, financial, legal. One incorrect decision can spell the end of a substantial company. In recent decades, bad decisions by chief executives have killed off large successful British companies some of which had survived and prospered for over a century.
The key tenet of John R. Dixon’s teachings is that engineering design is essentially science-based problem solving with social human awareness. Hence, the character traits often attributed to successful engineering, for example intelligence, creativity and rationality (i.e. inventiveness and analysis), which are typically the focus of modern engineering degrees, are not sufficient in developing long-lasting engineering solutions. Rather, engineering education should focus on distilling a “well-roundedness”, in the American liberal arts sense of the word.
As Dr Partridge points out in his speech, this requires a basic understanding of decision making under uncertainty, as pioneered by Kahnemann and Tversky, and how to deal with randomness or mitigate the effects of Black Swan events (see Taleb). Second, Dr Partridge acknowledges that combining these characteristics in a single individual is difficult, if not impossible, such that companies are essential in developing good engineering solutions. This means that soft skills, such as team work and leadership, need to be developed simultaneously and a basic understanding of business (commercial, financial and legal) is required to operate as an effective and valuable member of an engineering company.
Next, Dr Partridge turns his attention to the current state of technology and engineering. He addresses the central question, has the progress of technology, since the development of the transistor, the moon landings and the wide-spread use of the jet engine, been quantitative or qualitative?
I remember a newspaper article by [Will] Hutton, [political economist and journalist, now principal of Hertford College, Oxford], decades ago entitled “The familiar shape of things to come”, a pun on H.G. Wells’ futuristic novel “The unfamiliar shape of things to come”. Hutton’s article explained how my parents’ generation, not my generation, not your generation, my parents’ generation had experienced the fastest rate of technological change in history. They grew up in the era of gas light but by the end of their days the man had been on the moon, jet airliners and colour television were a common experience. But, Hutton argued, since the 1960s subsequent progress of technology has been quantitative rather than qualitative.
But, how about the dramatic improvements in microelectronics and communications, etc.?, much of which has occurred since Hutton’s article was written. Are they quantitative or qualitative improvements? I think they are quantitative because so much of the groundwork had already been completed long before the basic inventions could be turned into economical production. […T]he scientific foundation for present microelectronic technology, way [laid] back in the 1930s. [This] work in solid state physics provided the underpinning theory that enabled the invention of the transistor in the 1950s. Now we harbour millions of these tiny devices inside the mobile phones of our pockets. That is quantitative progress from bytes to gigabytes.
This reminds me of one of Peter Thiel’s, co-founder of the Silicon Valley venture capital firm Founders Fund, statements “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters”. On the Founders Fund website the firm has published a manifesto “What happened to the future?”. In the aerospace sector alone, the manifesto addresses two interesting case studies, namely that the cost of sending 1kg of cargo into orbit has barely decreased since the Apollo program of the 1960’s (of course Elon Musk is on a mission to change this), and that, since the retirement of the Concorde, the time for crossing the Atlantic has actually gone up.
While I don’t fundamentally agree with Thiel’s overall assessment of the state of technology, I believe there is abundant evidence that the technologies around us are, to a large extent, more powerful, faster and generally improved versions of technology that already existed in the 1960s, hence quantitative improvements. On the other hand, the addition of incremental changes over long periods of time can lead to dramatic changes. The best example of this is Moore’s Law, i.e. the observation that the number of transistors on an integrated circuit chip doubles every 18 to 24 months.
At face value, this is clearly quantitative progress, but what about the new technologies that our new found computational power has facilitated? Without this increase in computational power, the finite element method would not have taken off in the 1950s and engineers would not be able to model complex structural and fluid dynamic phenomena today. Similarly, computers allow chemists to develop new materials specifically designed for a predefined purpose. Digital computation facilitated the widespread use of control theory, which is now branching into new fields such as 3D printing and self-assembly of materials at the nano-scale (both control problems applied to chemistry). Are these new fields not qualitative?
The pertinent philosophical questions seems to be, what qualifies as qualitative progress? As a guideline we can turn to Thomas Kuhn’s work on scientific revolutions. Kuhn challenged the notion of scientific progress on a continuum, i.e. by accumulation, and proposed a more discrete view of scientific progress by “scientific revolutions”. In Kuhn’s view the continuity of knowledge accumulation is interrupted by spontaneous periods of revolutionary science driven by anomalies, which subsequently lead to new ways of thinking and a roadmap for new research. Kuhn defined the characteristics of a scientific revolution as follows:
- It must resolve a generally accepted problem with the current paradigm that cannot be reconciled in any other way
- It must preserve, and hence agree with a large part of previously accrued scientific knowledge
- It must solve more problems, and hence open up more questions than its predecessor.
With regards to this definition I would say that nanotechnology, 3D printing and shape-adaptive materials, to name a few, are certainly revolutionary technologies in that they allow us to design and manufacture products that were completely unthinkable before. In fact I would argue that the quantitative accumulation of computation power has facilitated a revolution towards more optimised and multifunctional structures akin to the design we see in nature. To name another, more banal example, the modern state of manufacturing has been transformed through globalisation. 30 years ago products were most exclusively manufactured in one country and then consumed there. The reality today is that different factories in different countries manufacture small components which are then assembled in a central processing unit. This assembly process has two fundamental enablers, IT and the modern logistics system. This engineering progress is certainly revolutionary, but perhaps not as sexy as flying cars and therefore not as present in the media or our minds.
The problem that Dr Partridge sees is that the tradition of engineering philosophy is not as well developed as that of science.
So what is engineering? Is it just a branch of applied science, or does it have a separate nature? What is technology? These questions were asked by Gordon Rodgers in his 1983 essay “The nature of engineering and philosophy of technology”. […] The philosophy of science has a large corpus of work but the philosophy of technology is still an emerging subject, and very relevant to engineering education.
In this regard, I agree with David Blockley (who I have written about before) that engineering is too broad to be defined succinctly. In its most general sense it is the act of using technical and scientific knowledge to turn an idea, supporting a specific human endeavour, hence a tool, into reality. Of course the act of engineering involves all forms of art, science and craft through conception, design, analysis and manufacturing. As homo sapiens our ingenuity in designing tools played a large part in our anthropological development, and according to Winston Churchill “we shape our tools and thereafter they shape us”.
So perhaps another starting point in addressing the quantitative/qualitative dichotomy of engineering progress is to consider how much humans have changed as a result of recent technological inventions. Are the changes in human behaviour due to social media and information technology of a fundamental kind or rather of degree? In terms of aerospace engineering, the last revolution of this kind was indeed the commercialisation of jet travel, and until affordable space travel becomes a reality, I see no revolutions of this kind in the near past or future.
So it seems more inventiveness is crucial for further progress in the aerospace industry. As a final thought, Dr Partridge ends with an interesting question:
Can one teach inventiveness or is it a gift?
Let me know your thoughts in the comments.
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