Engineering Roles

A Quote from Freeman Dyson

Somewhere along the way, during the past six months or so, I saw a quote about engineers attributed to a 1979 book written by Freeman Dyson, titled Disturbing the Universe. As I am too frequently apt to do, I found a used copy listed on Amazon and had it shipped my direction. This particular book managed to escape the piles of books I am hoarding in my office, and found its way to my bedside stand. As a result, I have been working my way through it for the past week or so.

Dr. Dyson is perhaps best-known for showing that two competing descriptions of quantum electrodynamics were equivalent. In particular, he matched the diagrams of Richard Feynman with the mathematical methods of Julian Schwinger and Sin-Itiro Tomonaga. His description of how the solution came to him sounds like something from a Hollywood script:

For two weeks I had not thought about physics, and now it came bursting into my consciousness like an explosion. Feynman’s pictures and Schwinger’s equations began sorting themselves out in my head with a clarity they never had before. For the first time I was able put them all together. For an hour or two I arranged and rearranged the pieces. Then I knew that they all fitted. I had no pencil or paper, but everything was so clear I did not need to write it down.

I’ve had an insight or two in my time, but never anything quite this substantial. And I can’t tell you how many good ideas (or at least what seemed to be good ideas at the time) slipped away because I failed to immediately write them down. But it appears Dr. Dyson’s memory is a good deal sharper than mine. Alas!

Between 1957 and 1961, Dr. Dyson worked on a project to use nuclear pulse propulsion for space flight. During this interval, he worked with engineers in designing spaceships, aiming for “Saturn by 1970.” In describing this period of his career, he notes (on page 114) that:

I particularly enjoyed being immersed in the ethos of engineering, which is very different from the ethos of science. A good scientist is a person with original ideas. A good engineer is a person who makes a design that works with as few original ideas as possible. There are no prima donnas in engineering.

It’s not yet clear to me where such a quote might fit into a book about engineering, but I love that final sentence: “There are no prima donnas in engineering.”