What engineers have in common (part 2)

(Part 1 of this series can be found here)

In my last post, I suggested the term physineer be used to describe engineers who deal with the physical realm. These are individuals employed in the traditional engineering fields, such as chemical, electrical, civil, and mechanical engineering. To see how the responsibilities of such engineers are similar to those employed in non-traditional engineering fields, say software or financial engineering, I want to take a closer look at what we consider to be “engineering” activities. In doing so, I’m going to wax philosophical for a bit—but only for a short while, I promise.

We live in a physical world. To survive in this realm we must eat sufficiently well, avoid facing extreme weather conditions without shelter, and protect ourselves from oncoming traffic. Thinking about how a mythical super-hero might catch a bullet in his or her teeth is a fairly harmless mental exercise, but attempting to replicate the feat in real life will lead (most likely) to a life-ending result. We cannot escape many of the consequences that result from our actions (and inactions) in this physical existence.

Despite our inability to escape the material realm, we humans have a natural proclivity for creating mental notions of how and why things work. These abstractions have no material embodiment; they exist only as a result of a particular pattern of brain waves. We can perceive a model to exist in our minds; but we are unable to separate it from our consciousness. I can explain to you the properties of my model, and suggest relevant analogies, but I cannot directly hand you my concept, nor can you hand me yours.

In contrast to our human traits, the physical world has no need for abstractions. (Okay, some of the quantum mechanics stuff is kind of freaky, so feel free to tell me that I’m wrong.) The apple that fell in front of Isaac Newton did not need to compute the gravitational force acting on it; it simply fell. Electrons passing through a wire do not know the wire’s resistance or the voltage drop across the wire; they simply jump from atom to atom. Force and voltage and resistance are human abstractions; models that allow us to comprehend how the world around us behaves. As we learn more about the universe, we update our models. I’m not aware of any evidence that the universe changes to accommodate our conception of how it should properly function.

So I propose a logical separation between the abstract and physical realms (with apologies to the true philosophers among you, who will accurately identify my lack of knowledge about metaphysical concepts such as Idealism and Platonic Realism.) This separation is illustrated in the figure above. The arrows represent our ability to move (mentally, not physically) between the two worlds. As mentioned above, we have a tendency to generate theories about how our universe operates. If our models (abstractions) are sufficiently accurate, then they can be used to “explain” physical phenomena. In some cases, they can potentially be used to predict events and interactions that have not yet been witnessed. Even more powerfully, our abstractions can be used to create new devices or methods that cause the physical world to behave in a manner that is more to our liking. (Think central air conditioning on a hot August afternoon in central Kansas, when the ever-present west wind has inexplicably died down for an entire week, and shimmering black tar bubbles have popped up along every inch of sealed crack in the dull, sun-baked asphalt.)

To further our discussion, I’ve added the names of certain disciplines to the diagram. These are the STEM subjects; science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. It seems to me that we can assign one of the STEM fields, in a somewhat meaningful manner, to each side of this figure. Associated with the upward arrow are scientists who observe the real world and try to explain its behavior through the creation of theoretical models. Their model development is guided by the rules of logic and analysis that mathematicians advance while working in the abstract realm, represented here by the upper box. In association with the downward arrow, traditional engineers (physineers) use models to assist in safely modifying physical behaviors, and in creating new physical embodiments. Finally, technologists utilize and operate mankind’s tools and creations while working in the physical realm, which is identified by the lower box.

As with all models, my diagram is an incomplete representation of reality (a notion better stated by Howard Skipper). One obvious flaw is that very few individuals employed in the STEM fields have the luxury (or curse, depending on your perspective) of limiting themselves to a single discipline. In addition to creating new methods and mechanisms, engineers must be able to develop new models, and should be adept in applied math. Scientists must, at times, design their own equipment and develop mathematical tools. Today’s mathematicians may interact with computer hardware or gather physical data, while technologists occasionally have to model physical phenomena or solve obtuse logic problems. But this diagram gives context to my proposed definition of an engineer:

engineer: an individual who designs novel methods, devices, or systems that can be practically implemented to meet specified constraints, or analyzes existing methods, devices, or systems for their capacity to meet such constraints, while making use of models and mathematics.

Physineers clearly fit into my definition of an engineer. But since those engaged in software, financial or social engineering do not design objects that can be physically embodied, can they really be engineers? Up until a few weeks ago, I would have said, “no.” However, note that my definition says nothing about the resulting designs being limited to the material world. In my next post, I will discuss the activities of engineers working in alternate realms.

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One Comment

  1. Posted January 10, 2012 at 12:43 am | Permalink