Tuesday, August 11, 2009

14: The more I learn, the less I know!

I just love the idea that if you step-out the perimeter of an arbitrarily small island with a pair of dividers, you get a larger answer as the size of the dividers get smaller! With tiny dividers the measured perimeter always approaches infinity, regardless of how small the island. Clearly the more closely you look, the more detail there is to be stepped around. It is an experiment that shows you can contain an infinite thing in a finite space [1].

It also tenuously illustrates why there is no relationship between the simplicity of a question and the complexity of an answer. So when I was recently asked what training an engineer needed, I heard the warning bells ringing. What is it that an engineer needs to know?

I suppose I have always been plagued by my own lack of knowledge. But over the years I known many others, whose skills I have always respected, who have said the same. Rumsfeld like [2]; there are things that I do know, and I suppose they help me to understand what it is that I don't. I am drawn to the conclusion that the role of an Engineer is to do what he/she can do, despite his/her lack of specific knowledge. OK, there are lots of things they know they can do; and there are other things they can learn how to do from others who have done it; but there are things they do where their judgement is as good as it gets, and their success is measured by the effectiveness of the result. Engineering is about "Delivering the Goods"; tangible, viable, commercial, economic and producible goods.

So, back to the training question ... Engineers need to know everything in the domain where their skills are likely to be used. And to be innovative in the way they apply that knowledge to delivering what has not been done before! Not surprising that 'we' feel inadequate, as we can never have enough knowledge or experience, to handle everything we are asked to address. And training only highlights how little of what we need to know, we actually do know. I suppose the real quality of an Engineer is measured by the way he/she overcomes their lack of specific knowledge.

Delivering the goods is what an Engineer does that is different to the Scientist. Scientists show that something is possible (eg: Carbon Nano-Tubes, Transistor, Calculus, Splitting the atom, Antibiotics, Liquid Crystals, etc). The Engineer takes that Science and makes a Product out of it. Regularises the concept into a process so that it can be repeated a million times; comprehending and implementing what 'its' potential for use in assemblies or structures. Uses his/her knowledge to know what is possible and then applying his/her skills to achieving it. The Technician tends and runs the machines/processes; keeps the wheels of industry turning. Maximising yield, productivity, quality, consistency, profitability; within the rules established by the Engineers.

Different roles, but what a team ... A Scientific Partnership creating the stuff that makes tomorrow different from today. Quite literally Building the Future!

Who says being an Engineer is not exciting!


1: http://ian-phillips.blogspot.com/2008/02/postponing-inevitable.html
2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jtkUO8NpI84