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Opposition from mediocre minds July 14, 2010

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering.
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A couple days ago, I read an article on the ‘culture war’ between scientists and engineers. (HT to Uncertain Principles.)

Being back with both feet firmly planted in Engineeringville, this topic has been on my mind a lot. Surprisingly enough, this same conflict resides entirely within engineering as well as being a conflict between engineers and scientists.

I’d say that the one thing engineers all have in common is that they like to make things. If you go into engineering, you’re not usually looking to reinvent the wheel. If you’re on the research side of engineering, you’re looking for a better way to make things, or even new things to make. To do this, they spend a lot of time training on what are the most efficient ways to design things. They don’t spend time learning how to reinvent the wheel: they learn from others mistakes.

Scientists, in my experience, are more interested in exploring ideas and figuring things out. They like to pull things apart, and figure out how they work. They like taking something seeing how changing things will affect its behavior. By spending a lot of time tinkering or thinking about things, they like to come up with a way to describe what they see or a theory on how it works. Whether or not it has a lot of practical use is simply not relevant (to many of them), but whatever they’re picking apart is usually pretty interesting.

But back to engineering, I see the same sort of conflict described in the article only in engineering. At one extreme, you have people with grandiose ideas, some of which have poorly defined details. At the other end are the people who have a set of skills which they know how to apply in a very narrow way and don’t like to budge outside of that comfort zone.

When you get these two types of people into a room, it can be very explosive. The person with the grandiose idea goes all Einstein, announcing that the other people involved “don’t know what I’m trying to accomplish! They have mediocre minds!” At the other end, they see Einstein’s crazy hair but no brain: “She doesn’t know anything about this process. She can’t use it that way, so she must be wrong.”

I think a lot of this has a lot to do with individual ideas about what is “engineering”. It’s a very poorly defined concept. There are a lot of engineers who are very ‘big picture’. They like to be innovative and try new things.

And this completely discomfits those who like to have things very clearly defined.

I think some of it could be solved with communication. I think that engineers who are comfortable with the big idea could spend more time working out the details with those who prefer more guidance. I know some people who make an effort to do this, though not all of them do so effectively. Unfortunately, it seems like the effort to broaden one’s horizons and deal better with open questions on a project isn’t an effort often made by those who prefer things nailed down, and I’m not sure how to motivate such people. Even the desire to make something only seems to apply to situations where they know in advance how to get there and what the end result will be.

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1. Mike Petrick - July 15, 2010

Ten years ago, I recorded a collection of songs, using a very low-budget portable 4-track recording unit. I didn’t have access to good microphones or even a mixing board. Two mic inputs on the 4-track and a couple of really cheap Radio Shack mics were all I had to work with.

Recording the drums was a nightmare. Neither microphone was capable of capturing the depth of the kick drum. On a whim, I positioned a 6×9 car speaker in front of the kick drum and connected it to the mic input. Worked beautifully! It captured the depth, but didn’t pick up the snare drum or the cymbals – which meant I had a nice, clean kick drum track.

A few months later, I brought all the songs to a friend of mine so he could burn them onto CD (I didn’t even have the tools to do THAT at the time!). He was a Music Major at MSUM back in those days, and absolutely brilliant when it came to recording/mixing music.

He asked me what type of mic I’d used to record the kick drum. When I told him I had used a car speaker, a heated debate ensued. He said it was impossible, and launched into a long tirade concerning impedance issues. I said “Well, it sounds alright, doesn’t it?” He replied “yeah…but it isn’t supposed to work.”. I said “well, Dave, I think it worked because you weren’t there to tell me it wouldn’t work.”

My point is that he was more “engineer”, whereas I was more “scientist”. He and I have worked on a variety of projects since then. When we work closely together, great things come out of it. We’ve built a rapport over the years and have a good understanding of what one another is aiming for.

To get through to people, I would say you have to articulate the importance of collective thought. No man is an island. That goes for scientists and engineers as well. 🙂

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2. mareserinitatis - July 15, 2010

Poverty is the mother of invention? 🙂

I totally agree, but I guess there’s a slightly different aspect to what you’re doing: you really love it. I get the sense that, for a lot of the ‘narrow focus’ people, this is not necessarily something they’re passionate about and are more concerned about just keeping their job. The ‘grandiose idea’ people want to try new things, and I think they get very attached to implementing their ideas…sometimes willing to charge over everyone else to get at it.

I agree, though, that a lot of this wouldn’t happen if people were more worried about the group effort.

I’m amused how it seems like there is always one in each group. There is a ‘grandiose idea’ person who always ends up paired up with a ‘narrow focus’ person, and they become the bane of each other’s existence. (It’s funny to watch these pairs interact.)

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3. Mike Petrick - July 15, 2010

Poverty absolutely is the mother of invention! 🙂 And it’s kind of ironic that, although I now have a multitude of musical goodies at my disposal, I was a lot more prolific way back then. Self-discipline needs a revival, I reckon.

Dave and I have engaged in many music discussions at a variety of dive-bars He’s the eloquent, well-educated music guru and I’m the country-bumpkin with a pure, unadulterated love of making music. But I need him and Juni (my other sound-engineer friend). They pick up where I can’t be bothered.

It needs to be like an assembly line: although the person who designs the car might not have all that much in common with the person who installs the engine, they’re both working toward the same goal. It’s a very efficient way of going about things.

They may get it as they get older. Most do. Everybody’s extremely idealistic when they’re young.

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4. Charles J Gervasi - July 15, 2010

I call this thing you describe Einstein vs. Edison. Einstein was a scientist, but there certainly are engineers who lean that way. Edison to me was an archetypal engineer. He just worked doggedly using a lot of trial-and-error, staying up all night, until he got the thing working well enough to be marketable. Marconi was the same way; scientific models said radio waves wouldn’t propagate over the horizon, but he just kept increasing output power and antenna size until it was reliable enough for him to build a wireless message business.

Sometimes I think the popular usage of science and engineering goes like this quote from John Dustin Kemper:
Every rocket-firing that is successful is hailed as a scientific achievement; every one that isn’t is regarded as an engineering failure.

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