F. Scott Fitzgerald supposedly told Ernest Hemingway, “The rich are different from you and me.” And Hemingway supposedly replied, “Yes, they have more money.”
Engineers are different from the rest of us. Sometime around the middle of the 20th century, they assumed the poetic mantle that writers had once worn.
In today's world engineers can dream, embrace the future, and comfort us with the notion that everything can be fixed. Well, almost everything; except, perhaps, the human condition.
One could measure easily the difference between engineers and the rest of us in the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. While we feared for the Japanese and other populations, engineers — and I have canvassed dozens — were full of praise for how the reactors had performed during the earthquake.
Marc Goldsmith, an MIT-trained engineer from Newton, Mass., said, “Everything worked as designed in the earthquake. At 9 on the Richter scale, the reactors shut down as planned; emergency systems went into operation and engineering triumphed.”
Yes, Goldsmith is adamant. The reactors, he said, survived an extraordinary earthquake like shock-resistant watches. It was the tsunami that did them in, destroying all fall-back power systems, including the diesel generators. Yet the 40-year-old reactors did what they were designed to do: They shut down.
The spirit of engineering as the poetic best hope for the creative, competitive future is to be found in engineering pure plays like PaR Systems, Inc., the bespoke engineering company based in Shoreview, Minn., near Saint Paul-Minneapolis. This company, relatively small with a few hundred employees and a blue-chip client list, epitomizes the idea of engineering with a poetic dimension and a mission to overcome failure, as in the work they are doing to help secure the Chernobyl nuclear disaster site in Ukraine; overcome complex and difficult crane installations; or simply to overcome the labor intensity and boredom of putting cans of food into cartons for delivery.
Overcoming is their ethos; clever robots, their pride. PaR chief technology officer, Albert A. Sturm, accepts the idea of poet-in-chief but believes that unlike poets of old, writing alone, the engineer-poet needs a team of engineering and related disciplines, and what he calls “a culture of creativity.”
Mostly, PaR is called in when nothing short of towering imagination and superb design and implementation will do; so they are less fettered by the need to “do it cheaply.”
President Mark A. Wrightsman says that since PaR went private some years ago, they have been saved from the tyranny of quarterly results. “If we were to go public again, I would not issue market predictions,” he says.
Two shadows pass across the countenance of engineering as mankind's friend and benefactor, disturbing the serenity of the world of logarithms, CADS (computer-aided designs) and micro-tolerances: design error and human error. If a bridge fails, blame the engineers for its faulty design or substandard materials. More often, the deadly foe of good systems is to blame: human error.
That was the case with the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico: people cutting corners and hoping for the best. Humans failing engineering. It also was human error that led to the meltdown at Three Mile Island; and human error that caused a miracle of engineering, the Airbus A380 superjumbo jet, to clip a small Bombardier aircraft at Kennedy Airport in New York.
As Douglas Adams wrote, “A common mistake people make when trying to design something completely foolproof is to underestimate the ingenuity of complete fools”
Yet engineers remain more hopeful than most people. They peer into the future, and where we see chaos and shortage, they see wonderful systems and plenty. Vive la difference.
By. Llewellyn King
Llewellyn King is executive producer and host of “White House Chronicle” on PBS. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org