A recent Wall Street Journal article named The Myth of Basic Science by Matt Ridley makes a fascinating argument that government spending on basic science does not result in technical innovation. The article argues that, instead, most innovation results from tinkering, and only after the tinkering results in new technology, will science catch up to fully explain it.
It uses steam as an example where it notes that the science of thermodynamics did not mature until after basic steam engines were invented and operating. In other words, the article argues that science simply fills in the knowledge gaps of innovative ventures.
It then goes on to argue that therefore government sponsored basic science is a not an effective investment.
As often is the case, Wall Street Journal and its writers raise an interesting point but jump to conclusions rather than fully working through the problem.
In engineering there are the difficult problems and the really difficult problems. Getting to the moon or designing a safe replica schooner is difficult. The really difficult engineering problems often require that the user also needs to be re-engineered. Such problems may involve removing addiction or stopping irrational behavior or reducing poverty or altering preconceived notions.
I have often stated that the most difficult problem in my career has been the problem of proper bilge water management in all its forms, and on June 23 and 24 there will be a conference that completes the MAX1Study effort and that discusses the latest developments in that regard. It will address old and new concerns and present the latest thinking in achieving rugged and efficient solutions. Especially the search for efficient solutions is taking center stage and often only after massive study will the efficient solutions start to become more apparent.
Very strangely, in the middle of this work, I came across a very interesting article in the Atlantic magazine about making proper police reforms. read more »
Note: I posed a question at the bottom of the original blog and in August 2016 added two book to the bottom of the list in response.
Books are fun, but very occasionally I have encountered books that have actually changed my understanding of humanity and the world.
Only a very small number of books actually unlocked pieces in my life’s puzzle, and helped me decode complex problems a little quicker and indentify false truths.
This is the short list of those books. (In parentheses I added the approximate date I read them and how I found out about them):
There is a Cold War (remember, that was before 1989) engineering joke that goes as follows:
The Russians had built a brand new huge airplane, and it was the pride of Russia, but they had a continuous problem with fatigue fracturing at the wing to fuselage connection.
They tried everything and it just kept fracturing. One day there was a goodwill tour of Americans that came to Russia and one of the tour members was a Boeing engineer.
One of the Russian aerospace engineers discovered this and during a quiet moment approached the Boeing engineer to see if he had any suggestions on the fracturing problem.
The Boeing engineer quickly came up with a solution. He said: “just drill tiny evenly spaced little holes right along the path where the fracture appears and the problem will go away.”
The Russian thought he was kidding, but they were desperate and decided to try it. Surprisingly it worked, the wing never fractured at the wing root again. Years later the Russian met the Boeing engineer again, and asked how he came up with that idea. The Boeing engineer told him it was easy, he just made the wing look like the perforations in Russian toilet paper, since that never tore at the perforations either.
But is there a kernel of truth in the joke?
I remember standing at the Newport News Shipyard gate in the 90’s next to Dorothy the tugboat and reading the shipyard’s motto:
“We will build good ships here — at a profit if we can, at a loss if we must, but always good ships”
This motto was apparently coined by Collis Huntington, founder of Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock, which is now Huntington Ingalls Newport News.
I liked this motto, especially since, at that time, TQM was in its revival in the United States. More remarkably, I did not know until later that Newport News’ motto had actually been used as an example of a proper TQM mission statement in Japan right after World War II.
Whether it is the truth, or whether the motto makes it appear so, there is a general industry impression that Newport News always built better ships.
Undoubtedly, I have always found that Newport News would insist on doing the right thing rather than deliver slip shod work. There is other evidence too; for example the Newport News built ship, Medina, was in ocean service from 1914 to 2009!
Nevertheless, over time, I feel the mission statement can stand some updating.
110 years after the first powered flight, I revisited Kitty Hawk with my college roommate John Mitchell and our wives. In the 31 years since my last visit, the surrounding area had become much more urbanized, but the park itself still tasted like that modest test facility that the Wright brothers had put together in the dunes.
However, 31 years of engineering experience, often related to engineering failures in all its phantasmagorical perturbations, left me with an entirely different appreciation of the Wright brothers. read more »
Engineering is an unusual profession. While it is often thought to be related to math and science and thought to be exact, it actually is a very complex blend of perspiration, inspiration, communication, confusion, calculation and evaluation and the math and science is only a tiny part of a much larger whole.