Friday, January 05, 2007


What makes a good, or great engineer?

I'm an engineer; at heart, by education, by training, by experience, and by profession.

I have degrees in aerospace, and computer engineering; I have a large amount of direct materials, mechanical, electrical, and information systems engineering experience and training; but those things are not what made me an engineer.

I'm an engineer, because it's what I am, mind body and soul. It's wired into me at the very base level of my intelligence and personality. Sure I could have chosen to do something else, some other profession; and I've certainly held jobs that had little (on the surface) to do with engineering; but an engineer is what I am, no matter what I do. Even serving in the Air Force, and doing security work; I've always had an engineering mindset and method, because it's simply who I am...

Of course most people don't really understand what an engineer is, or does, or what that mindset means; they make an assumption based on their surface perceptions, that has little to do with what makes an engineer.

A competent engineer can be trained, or develop through experience; but a great engineer has to be born that way, AND develop through training, education, and experience.

All three are critical to good or great engineering.

Without experience, very little that you do will be useful, efficient, or just plain work right. Experience teaches you how to screw up less, how to do things easier, and how to recover from errors.

It's hard to get experience without at least some training (including self training); or at least it's hard to get useful and instructive experience. Training gives you the basic familiarity with systems, components, and methodologies that allows you to gain useful understanding, and do things efficiently.

It's hard to make anything new without education (including self education); and if you aren't building new things, or coming up with new ways of doing old things; you aren't an engineer, you're a technician. Education helps you to understand the theories and science and reasoning and motivation behind the training and experience you have accumulate; and helps you to understand those lessons, and how they apply to new and different components, systems, and methodologies.

Ok, but what is a good engineer? What is engineering?

Engineering is the art of HOW. How things work, how things are built, how things interact and react, how problems are solved.

Engineering is the fusion of the theoretical and empirical. Scientist understand WHY things work, technicians know THAT things work if they do certain things... but engineers understand HOW things work (and to do so must understand much of the other two), and this understanding allows them to do and build, and fix new things.

A great engineer is a great engineer, no matter what their discipline; no, not all knowledge and experience transfers, but if someone makes great mechanical engineer, they most likely could make a great aerospace engineer, or nuclear engineer with the proper motivation, training, and experience; because great engineering requires three fnudamental drives or abilities in edition to training, education, and experience:
1. The innate understanding of how components, systems, and methodologies interact with each other; and the ability to distinguish and determine causation, correlation, and effect.

2. The absolute drive to figure out the "how" of everything around them.

3. The ability to generalize knowledge, experience, and insight gained on one system, component. or methodology; to other systems, components, and methodologies; similar or dissimilar.
W call the synthesis of these things, ingenuity; and it's what makes engineers something other than technicians or scientists.

If you can do these things, you will be a good engineer; even if you are a poor scientist or technician. If you cannot do these things, you may be a competent engineer; but you'll never be great, or even good. If you can only do one or two of these things, you may end up a good scientist or technician, but you'll never be a great engineer.

When I interview engineers for a job, I ask them all the usual questions, and then a throw one out there from left field: "Tell me what devices or pieces of technology you have in your house. Ok, now tell me how they all work".

If they are a real engineer, they'll be able to do it for just about everything; because they couldn't stand to have something around them that they didn't understand the workings of. Then they'll be able t take the knowledge of how those systems work, and apply them to microwave transcievers, or production line control systems, or large dataset search routines.

Now, take what I've just said makes a great engineer; and stop thinking about mechanical systems like cars, and computers.

Engineers are not just mechanics, or machinists, or programmers; they understand SYSTEMS, and by that I don't mean computer systems, or tooling systems or anything else normal people think of when they hear the word system.

A system, is a set of inter-related and interacting components, actions, decisions, behaviors, results, inputs, outputs, and feedback; be it a machine, or a busy intersection, or a city, or a society, or a person; they're all systems.

Normal people look at the world and they see people and places and things going about their business; engineers see something entirely different. We see systems interacting at every level; every action, reaction, result, behavior... they're all interconnected.

This is one reason why engineers are so ... well... absolute about absolutes, and so fuzzy about those things that are not absolutes.

To illustrate, let me use an example I've used before in this blog: the Steven DenBeste canonical example of the difference between how engineers look at energy production, and how the non-engineer looks at it.

Any good engineer can tell you: no amount of engineering will produce an energy source that is more reliable, cheaper, more available, safer, more environmentally friendly, and as energetic, as fossil fuels. That is what it would take to completely replace them in our world, and it simply cannot be done; so it isn't going to happen; at least not until fossil fuels are so expensive that other alternatives make more sense, in which case the maket will dicate those other alternatives are developed... which of course will make fossil fuesl cheaper becasue demand will be reduced, which will mean less incentive to devlop alternative technologies until the cycle repeats itself a few times.

The primary energy source for the human race was wood from pre-history until the developement of technologies for cheaply extracting coal in the late 18th century. We first discovered oil was a useful fuel for lamps, and for destructive devices, back in classical greek times. It took us til the 1860s to really start working with petroleum as anything other than a nuisance. It was the 1890s before we started using it much as a fuel, and then it was mostly used for heat and light. It wasn't until the 1920s and the widespread rise of the automobile and the airplane before oil became our societies primary source of fuel; and we are STILL using coal for something like half of all our electircal power generation around the world. The technological cycle is accelerating, but it doesnt work overnight.

When a good engineer says something is impossible, they mean that for all practical purposes it cannot be done; not that it's very hard, or that "we don't know how to do it", which is what most people mean when they say something is impossible. If a good engineer thinks something is possible, but very very hard, they'll tell you.

Some people see, to think that every scientific or technical problem can eventually be solved if we jsut get enough smart people, working hard enough, with enough money and resources. Unfortunately, that just isn't true. Great enringeering can do amazing things... even do what is seemingly impossible, by doing things in ways that circumvent limitations. This ability to do amazing things with engineering has created the expectation I mention above in may people who should really know better. The thing is, no amount of engineering, no matter how brilliant, no matter how technically advanced, no matter how innovative; can change, or get around the laws of physics. In order to "do the impossible", the very laws of the universe have to change, or at least our understanding of them does.

It is impossible for solar technologies to economically replace fossil fuels; and even uneconomically the environmental impact would be far higher than that of the fuels they are replacing.

The exact same could be said about wind power, tidal power, geothermal power... really almost all of the so called "alternative energy" sources. It is impossible to entirely, or even substantially replace fossil fuels with the so called "alternative" energy sources being promoted as environmentally friendly; without either destroying our society through the massive increase in the cost of energy, or hurting the planet far worse than fossil fuels ever could.

Note I do not say "we don't know how to", or "it would be very hard to"; it is for all PRACTICAL purposes, impossible; because to do so would require a fundamental change in the way physics and the universe work as we know it. There is an infinitessimal chance that such a change would occure, therefore when going into detail I say "for all practical purposes".

Again, that one hedge, doesn't mean what non-engineers mean when they say it. A normal person say"for all practical purposes", and they mean "it would be very hard and expensive to do so"; when an engineer says it he's saying that it would require a change in the fundamental laws of the universe to work.

This isn't to say that some of these technologies are not useful, and desirable as supplemental to fossil fuels; just that we can't replace fossil fuels with them, either entirely, or even mostly.

There is one currently working technology, and two very promising future technologies to replace fossil fuels. The first is mature, stable, and useful technically; and will become more so as engineering develops the systems to take advantage of it. The other two, we don't really know how to do right yet, or in the case of the second, even if it will be possible to do so.

If you're an engineer, you already know what three technologies I'm speaking of: nuclear fission, large scale use of hydrogen as a fuel, and nuclear fusion.

Nuclear fission is a well understood technology. It is still an immature field and market; largely because of political considerations; but it's safe, it works, and given proper economies of scale and a favorable regulatory environment, it's relatively inexpensive.

Of course the primary problem there is political; in that the envriowhacko movement has made large scale nuclear power all but impossible for now, in most places. Secondarily, we haven't developed the technologies necessary to parochially replace our use of fossil fuels with electricity.

As to the first issue, as time goes on I believe that nuclear fission will become the dominant means of electrical power generation in the industrialized world; because we need more and more power to keep that world industrialized, and the generation of power through fossil fuels is dirty, and expensive; and will continue to become more so.

As to the second, well there's no certainty we'll ever be able to replace fossil fuels with electricity... in fact there's a near certainty we wont be able to entirely, but that we'll be able to replace enough, that fossil fuels will become a very small concern, or could be replaced with other alternatives.

Fusion, is a lot like fission on the practical technical side, in that we don't have the systems necessary to use electric power as a fossil fuel replacement yet; but in the case of fusion the problem is more fundamental. We THINK we can figure out how to make fusion useful, controllable, safe, practical, and efficient... but we don't KNOW yet. We BELIEVE that the physics of the question are understood, and do not prevent us from engineering the solution as time goes on.

The problem is, we've been working on it for fifty years now, and we're still crawling like babies. It's going to take a hell of a lot more work just to make sure it can actually be done; and then a hell of a lot more work to actually engineer the solutions to doing it.

In the mean time, we should be doing as much as possible to engineer the changeover to an electrical energy world; using nuclear fission as the power source.

The final technology I mention as being potentially useful, is hydrogen fuel. Hydrogen is great, because it's energy dense (by weight anyway), it's the most common substance in the universe, and the only byproducts from its use in an oxygen atmosphere are heat and water. There are two primary potential uses for hydrogen as an energy source: In fuel cells to generate electricity, and as a direct fuel for turbine, and compression engines (like gasoline or diesel motors for example).

The first requires that we once again come up with ways to replace fossil fuels with electricity... which of course means that we should be engineering more and better ways of doing that; after all, ALL of our promising technologies for replacing fossil fuels require it.

The second usage requires us to engineer engines that use hydrogen as their fuel; something that is very much doable; and in fact something that has been in nascent stages for over 100 years; but because of the cheap availability and usefulness of fossil fuels was never developed very much.

Of course the practical problems with hydrogen are substantial. First, how do you extract the hydrogen from its base sources (primarily water and natural gas using current technologies)? Second, how do you safely transport it and distribute it? Third, what do you do with all the water vapor and waste heat being created when the hydrogen is being used as a primary fuel source? Fourth, how do you solve all of these problems economically?

The good news is that these are all well understood technical issues from a scientific standpoint; what remains is to engineer the solutions, and then build the infrastructure; and THAT is a political and social problem not a technical one.

So what do I think is going to happen? Well I would guess that as I said, nuclear fission power will become the dominant source of electrical power; and we will slowly shift as much as possible away from fossil fuels and into electric power. As we do so, hydrogen power will develop very slowly, because with less demand, fossil fuels will become far less expensive, and less of an environmental problem. From there, the market will determine the solution; but unless someone comes up with a massive engineering and economic upside to hydrogen, we'll probably keep using fossil fuels for the foreseeable future.

Long digression there with a lot of maybes and could bes and caveats right? Like I said, if it's not an absolute, we're pretty fuzzy about it. Normal people will say "Yes we can do this if we work hard enough" or "No we can't do this"; engineers will say "We can do this if... and its going to be hard if... but maybe... let me try this..."

Of course this method of looking at the world, for all it's advantages and abilities, has a problem. When you look at everything as interconnected systems, you tend to expect that systems and behaviors will be at least marginally predictable or reasonable, or rational.

One problem with that, human beings aren't. People are very complex systems, and they don't have consistent rules or behaviors. They ahve motivations, and passions, and understandings, and misunderstandings, and chaos, and fear, and inspiration... but the one thing they don't have is consistenly understandable or predictable rules or behaviors.

The universe is perverse. Complex systems are simply not rational or predictable, except at the macro level (and sometimes not even then); because of chaos theory, because of the law of unintended consequences, hell even because of the second law of thermodynamics.

The truly great engineers of this world know and understand this, at as deep a level as their understanding of systems; and thus they can function in the world without isolating themselves, or destroying themselves; or their relationships with those around them.

In fact, through this understanding, they can produce and express true brilliance; and if they're lucky they can achieve that which so few do: happiness

Unfortunately, there're a hell of a lot of otherwise good engineers who persist and insist on treating complex systems, and complex people; as if they were predictable, and rational. Those people don't generally end up very happy at all.