Monday, 9 May 2016

Musings of an Engineer

In the 21st century, expectation has a synonym in duty.

Being an engineering student, in a little over two years time from now, I will be expected to have gained sufficient knowledge and enough skill in this profession the wise men named engineering, to carry forward a tradition more than five-and-half thousand years old, when the wheel-and-axle was invented in Bronze Age Eurasia. Have a look at the earliest image of a wheeled cart, excavated in Poland, and then at the smartphone in your hand. The weight of the heritage, for sure, is not a light one to bear.

How would our world be without these?
Adam and Eve were the finest creations of God. What separates their descendants from the 8 million other species of co-inhabitants is a superior brain and a will to modify our environs in a manner most suitable for us. Microeconomic theory assumes that human psychology compels man to strive for the circumstances and situations among various restrictions which provide maximum utility or satisfaction to him. In layman's language, I would rather use a plough rather than dig up my field with bare hands, given that I do not own a tractor. It was easy enough to break a branch off a tree, but the difficulty lay in sharpening its point, attaching a metal tip and building a device that throws the arrow with sufficient speed to maim the deer it was aimed at. Thus started the trade of engineers: Modifying the environs to obtain maximum utility.

The developers of the earliest wheel, and then in the course of time the potter's wheel, the iron tools and other similar items, hugely important though they were in terms of contribution, cannot be called engineers by today's definition, for back then trade was based on the principle of trial-and-error. As science was yet to develop, the practice lacked the strong foundation which physics and maths were to give it later on. Still, that does not in any way take away the skills and contributions of those ancient engineers who without any firm scientific knowledge had perfected their skill and passed them on through generations. Post the Industrial Revolution in Europe and the emergence of USA as a world power, engineering was here to stay. Nevertheless, as in any emerging field, at that point educated and qualified engineers were still rarities and were treated with lots of respect.

How NOT to misuse a boon of Science.
And look how it all has changed! The 19th and 20th centuries came up with two brilliant inventions which were to change for ever the way life is lived on the planet. We got electricity, and we got the computer. The paradigm shift caused by each was to alter human wants on a fantastic scale, and the onus was on the engineers to provide for the increased demands. Science provided the solid bedrock for engineers and the newest playthings available in an engineer's nursery seemed intent on breaking every restriction there had ever been on human satisfaction. And in some cases, human stupidity.

"Science is about knowing; engineering is about doing", said American author Henry Petroski. As of today, engineers happen to be ruling the roost. One comes across endless inane social media jokes trolling engineers, but one of the more accurate ones described a postman asking a shopkeeper where the house of the local engineer was, and eliciting the reply "Kisi bhi ghar me ghus jaao, yahan to saare engineer hi hai...". Jests apart, engineers are to be found at a dime a dozen these days. Growth in number of colleges across the length and breadth of the country which purportedly teach engineering is akin to that of shopping malls. In some of them, the quality of engineers produced should be placed under consideration.

As always, centres of absolute excellence have come up and are thriving. They absorb the finest brains of the country and develop them into skilled professionals. These institutes are cause for pride, and not of concern.
An error of judgement.
What should be worrying us instead, is the army of not-so-skilled engineers who are also populating the market. Whether it be lack of brains, poor undergraduate education or lack of discipline and honesty, these wannabes (for want of a better term), are not quite bringing to the table what his or her profession demands. What it results in is dilution of the skill of an entire workforce. A very ironic and saddening comment in this regard comes to mind, coming from one of the best professors I have had the opportunity to learn from. With absolutely no disrespect to the medical community, it was sometime last year that he had made this observation in class. When an unskilled surgeon makes one incorrect incision during an operation, one patient dies. When an unqualified engineer makes one error of judgement while designing a flyover, scores of people die underneath. Little did any of us guess that at that moment somewhere in the city such a fatal design was on its way to construction, acceptance and eventual devastation on an overwhelming scale.

Why do we all want to become engineers? A brief survey tells me that the recurrent justifications are a secure future, an assured job (?), an appeal for a technical branch of education, and promise of a (comparatively) easy student life. Some students did maybe make a bit of a sacrifice in letting go of subjects where they had a bit more interest, but not all such cases are as heart wrenching as Farhan Qureshi's... A matter of deciding in favour of the greater good for the future. In my case, it was a combination of all, but primarily an inclination towards applied sciences instead of theory. How far these expectations are realized is a separate topic for debate, but maybe in some cases, there were other reasons for this choice of career, that it was the only option available to pursue, and all the friends were doing it.....

In harmony.
It is not I but far wiser men who have stated that distinctions between subjects do not exist in reality; only in our perceptions of it do we have them. CV Raman, a distinguished pianist himself, said that Science is the highest form of Creative Art. Software is a great combination between artistry and engineering, according to Bill Gates. Indeed, the greatest engineering marvels of the world are known more for their artistic and cultural value. Art cannot sustain itself without engineering assistance, while a fine creation of an engineer is dry without art. The traditional feud between science and engineering is meaningless as well, for without either the other would fail to exist, even in the most rudimentary form. But, considering the manner in which we perceive things, subtlety is maybe not the most prominent quality! Science. Commerce. Engineering. Humanities. The walls that separate them in our minds are as prominent as the full-stops between the words...

An engineering marvel, and an artist's dream.

It is early days for me, and I have no idea yet as to how good or how bad an engineer I will become. Marks do reflect some of your capabilities, but not a lot. Which is a good thing and a bad thing, considering how marks-dependent our evaluation system is. Even the admission criterion at most engineering colleges is solely dependent on how much less of brain-freeze you are suffering from during three hours of an entrance exam! So instead of harping on how tough it is to survive today as I did in a previous blog, it would rather be of more benefit if I returned to the perusal of the syllabus of my upcoming semester. The next two years would see me graduating along with a flock of fellow engineers, each trying to outsmart the other. Those among us whom the education system and the industry would be deeming suitable for this ancient trade, would continue along the well trodden path and lead the contented life of an engineer. And those of us who will be rejected at the industry's sieve would be forced to look at other shores for sustenance, greener or otherwise!

"One man's magic is another man's engineering. Supernatural is a null word": Robert Heinlein.