Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Applied Science, Technical Science and Engineering Science Cycle

Whether applied science, technical science or engineering science comes first, is similar to the chicken and egg story, none the less there is a cycle from one to the other. It is also similar to the folklore that the C programming language is written in C. As I understand the compiler for the C programming language was written in assembly language, but then needed something to test the compiler, and so the compiler was rewritten using the C programming language itself, then compiled: the result was more compact efficient machine code. The compiler thus became the one that was written in C itself, and the language and associated compiler can be extended by programming the extensions in C and compiling using the existing C compiler: it thus evolves itself. It is thus a matter of timing, and an iterative cycle or sprial.

For nearly one hundred years there has been an on going debate about the meaning of the words: engineer and engineering. There are those that declare that: those who carry out engineering are engineers. This group has to define a filter to identify and classify that which is to be called engineering. Then there are those who declare that: engineering is what engineers do. This group has to define a filter to identify those who can be placed in the box of engineers. The two groups never agree, and are unlikely to ever resolve the problem, for they the latter group in particular wants to place legal constraints on the use of the English language. When the public refers to something having been engineered, they are not referring to activity carried out by someone fitting in the box of engineers, they are referring to something that was brought about by deliberate intent. The persons that bring this about are referred to as being engineers, architects, planners or draughtsmen. Take note of the latter: once upon a time, draughtsmen had more esteem than they currently do. Technical drawing was an important problem solving and communication tool. Technical drawings are one of the lowest cost prototypes that can be produced. Being able to find the true lengths of lines and the true shapes of planes, for 3D ojects that do not yet exist, is an important skill. The technical training of the first formally trained, so called engineers, was in technical drawing, engineering graphics or descriptive geometry as it is otherwise called.

Telford and Coulomb are not engineers, because they designed and constructed things, but because they did so at the frontiers of science and technology. Telford used a rational scientific method when he built small scale prototypes before building much larger versions of his bridges. He also used proof loads to test materials that were installed within his constructions. With a qualitative understanding of the materials available he made judgements, which turned out successful, with out need of complex mathematical analysis. His prototypes, not only assessed the performance of the end-product, but also tested the construction process, and tested the supply lines for materials and labour. Navier on the otherhand taking a mathematical theory which had not been validated by empirical evidence experienced problems, with bridges apparently collapsing during construction: the result was need for some material testing and large design factors to calibrate the theory against real world behaviour. Thus sustaining the ancient Greek debate between the empirical and the theoretical. The human senses cannot be trusted therefore need the theoretical, but what good is a theory that doesn't reflect reality?

Unlike Telford, Coulomb had at least two years of formal military training in science and mathematics, largely biased towards descriptive geometry. As a miltary engineer he was engaged in building fortifications and machines of war. During construction of fortifications Coulomb encountered problems with collapse of soil embankments and collapse of the walls of trenches. This led to Coulomb experimenting and otherwise developing the fundamentals of soil mechanics.

For most of history technology has been developed by a process of trial and error. By themselves rational methods cannot solve problems, they merely validate that a solution obtained by other means is an actual solution to a problem. Problem solving, invention, and innovation require creativity and imagination, and thus far such cannot be imparted by any formal education process. Most technology was invented by people operating at the coal face of where a problem was experienced, and who also have the skills to make and the opportunity to put the technology to use. Eureka moments are typically experienced by people deliberating searching for a solution to a problem, but otherwise taking a break from such search. Thus when they tripped over the solution, they were able to recognise it has such. Being at the coal face is also important, for designers can come up with all kinds of ideas, but often all kinds of opposition to implementing the ideas arise and therefore opposition to implementing and trialing the technology. When the technology arises at the coal face, the person is willing to trial alternatives, to modify their approach to doing things. So real world experimentation takes place, mostly qualitative and observational rather than measurable and quantitative. Science in the first instance is about observation and recording, not measurement.

It has been said that the steam engine was made before the science of thermodynamics. Not entirely so, it may be that the steam engine was made before the science of thermodynamics was named and quantified, but science was otherwise there before the steam engine. Before the steam engine someone had to have observed the boiling of water and the action of steam: whether Hero's kettle spinning an axle or a lid lifted off a pan, some action of steam was observed. From the observation an hypothesis posed and technology built in the hopes the hypothesis would prove true. Further observation and/or hypothesis that more steam and larger engines would provide more energy. So no point building smaller engines to get more power. But bigger engines taking up more space and burning more fuel, was not desirable. So ask a question: is it possible to get more power from the existing engines? What modifications can be made to get more work from the engines whilst using less fuel?

An important question, for one of the first uses of steam engines was to pump water from coal mines, the coal was required for coking iron. Actually there had been something of an environmental crisis, forests or woods were being cut to produce charcoal to coke the iron to produce steel. This deprived the population of the wood they needed for cooking and heating. The discovery that coal could be used for coking iron and otherwise be used as a domestic fuel reduced further stripping of the wood lands, though brought about atmospheric pollution. All designs have detriments and benefits. Whilst the coal fired steam engine pumped water out of the coal mines, the amount of coal used was the greater share of the extra coal able to extract. If there was to be any point mining this extra coal the steam engines needed to be more efficient. Scientific observation starts to lead to something that can be measured: coal extracted versus coal consumed, and the amount of water pumped and the height raised. From the technology a quantifiable science starts to emerge. This observation, measurement and recording: is applied science. Applied science simply states what is, and provides hypothesis of behaviour that can be validated by more experiments and testing.

Knowing that the steam engine consumes more coal than desired, that the plank of wood used as a bridge snaps when the span is too great, that the stone wall collapses when too high, does not help achieve specific objectives. Imagination is required to pose a scientific hypothesis and so also is imagination required to invent methods of testing such hypothesis and validating it: merely collecting supporting evidence is not adequate scientific proof. All the evidence may support the idea that all swans are white, until encounter the black swans of Australia. But what now the hypothesis? Can we expect to find say blue swans? Just because we have not found doesn't mean do not exist? Is there a clue in the DNA that suggests blue swans not possible? Science is about curiosity, posing questions and seeking answers. Scientific knowledge is the collection of answers and solutions found: such knowledge is often simply abbreviated to science.

Once we have the qualitative and/or quantitative scientific knowledge explaining the behaviour of steam engines, beams and columns etc. then we have Technical Science. With technical science we can make sure the plank of wood is thick enough that it doesn't snap when we use as a bridge across a creek. With technical science we can make the stone wall thick enough in the first instance to match its height, self weight and the roof load it supports. We don't have to build the wall until it buckles and collapses, make it thicker, build flying buttroses and the likes by trial and error until the wall stops collapsing. We can minimise the number of trial and error experiments, because we have a scientific record of past experience, to use to direct future action. Technical science does not invent the steam engine, nor invent the wheel, technical science simply tells us how to make a steam engine fit for a specific purpose. Technical science provides us with the means of checking a proposed specification for a wheel to determine if we can expect it to perform satisfactorily. Technical science removes the need to re-invent the wheel, and also ensures that we do not invent an inferior version of the wheel should we choose to be innovative. The science itself does not provide the innovation, just the means of testing the innovation.

As indicated earlier, for me engineering takes place at the frontiers of science and technology. Not the frontier of the scientific method but the frontier of scientific knowledge, a point where there is no technical science. No technical science and the technology exists merely as a concept, an hypothesis. Whilst pure science poses hypothesis about behaviour of the natural world, engineering science poses hypothesis about deliberately directing the behaviour of the natural world through the implementation of technology. The contention here is that when the technology has been implemented, and the hypothesis has been validated by applied science, then the engineering science becomes technical science. Last years engineer becomes this years technician.

When the institution of structural engineers (UK) was founded it was done so largely with a focus on a new fangled material in the form of steel reinforced concrete. Applied science needed to determine the limits and capabilities of this composite material. Engineering science needed to determine a rational method of design for the material to be used in a large variety of different structural forms: for example plates, shells and frames. Structural forms for which technical science did not provide practical methods of structural analysis whilst the proper form and proportion of reinforced concrete itself was not understood. Today there are plenty of text books, industry handbooks, national standards and codes of practice covering the technical design of reinforced concrete. It is now a matter of technical science and the community does not expect reinforced concrete structures to fail unexpectedly.

Modern industrial society has an abundance of technical science but is otherwise failing to produce people who are adequately competent in the application of such knowledge. There is far too much focus on teaching, collecting parchments and other credentials than on exercising a duty of care.

So called professionals are creating an environment in which peoples confidence in doing for themselves is destroyed, but it also goes for the professionals themselves. They assume they know all they need to know, if they weren't taught, then they don't know and don't need to know, or they need to return to formal education and be taught some more. They are not people with curiosity, who ask questions and seek answers. Furthermore they only pursue knowledge work during the hours they are paid, they tend to expect to be given a job, and to be paid for further training to help keep the job. Professionals they may call themselves but none the less they are cogs within the machinery of industrial society. Which wouldn't be so bad, but they are defective cogs, and the machine is defective as a consequence.

Whilst it may be possible to write exact specifications for the cogs required by the machinery of industrial society to run smoothly: the machine itself only requires so many cogs. Society however produces more cogs than the machine requires, but not enough to build another machine. The existing machine is therefore inadequate. Whilst people may not want to be part of the machine, and consider themselves more than cogs in the machine, their survival is dependent on slotting into the industrial machine. Creativity and imagination is required to live outside of the industrial machine. Creativity and imagination are also required to adapt and modify the machine so that it better serves the people it is meant to benefit, rather than enslave them. Formal education cannot impart this creativity, it can only pass on the knowledge of technical science, and hope to enhance and direct existing creative talent rather than destroy such talent.

The point is, that it is not necessary to go to university to study technical science. The original engineers had no universities to go to, and there was no technical science to pass on to them. The physical world was their university, and the scientific method their principal tool. Also who first came up with a theory, who a theory is named after is not so important as to whether the theory reflects the real world. A designer in the modern world, with in industrial society has a responsibility and a duty of care to become conversant with the technical science appropriate to the technology they are dealing with. Such technical science may not directly relate to prior learning. If can find somebody else who has such prior learning, then good, but resource constraints mean that is not always possible. Such resource constraints also mean that there may not be adequate time, to become fully conversant with the available technical science: decisions have to be made and actions taken. This means that in hindsight, risks taken could have been avoidable if more resources been available, to make proper use of the available technical science.

I will leave for now, but at some future date I will essay how I believe modern professionals have hijacked the human knowledge base for profit, and are otherwise becoming a public menace. Rather than people learning to satisfy their own basic and higher needs, they are entering formal education to gain a ticket to employment and join a profession. Markets don't work on the basis of supplying to demands, rather on the basis of: this is what I have, this is what I actually need, I demand an exhange take place, else I have no need to recognise rights of ownership. Establishing and sustaining professions involves much politics, as does survival of the individual. We are not training, accrediting and licensing professionals because we need the professionals. Professionals are just like any other manufactured product, and as such can be substituted or complemented by a variety of other products. We are producing the professionals therefore largely due to lack of attention to our real needs, and also due to some social and political manipulation on the part of the professions. That is failure to write proper specifications for the cogs that the machinery of industrial society needs, and also a failure to produce universal cogs that can be put any where in the machine and dynamically adapt to their environment. This is not to say that individuals are not creative, or dynamically adaptive, but that the industrial system is not capable of producing as a matter of routine.

Further more all systems in place are creating greater restrictions on personal actions and greater dependence on professionals. Whilst quality of service and public safety require some level of regulation the current regulatory systems are inappropriate: the systems seem to deteriorate until the incompetent are in authority. The problem is technical science, it can validate solutions but it cannot solve problems. Regulations are too rigid, the environment too dynamic and a lack of imagination to fuel foresight. The rational promotes the rational and pushes out the creative, and our ability as a society to recognise forth coming probems and solve them is diminished. Also "they" are wrong, mathematics does not teach nor develop problem solving, its teaches solutioneering: problems are not actual problems but mathematical models with known evaluation techniques. Real problems have to be mapped onto the available solutions. It is highly unlikely that those that study only mathematics will ever solve the unsolved problems of mathematics: they cannot take the innovative lateral tangential leap in thinking required to find the solution. They are, merely repeating old behaviour expecting different results: their trials and errors are not on new ground. It is not an issue of a complete shift to encouraging creativity, it is an issue of getting the balance right, and otherwise denying the professionals authority to rule as a new aristocracy.

But as I said that is for another time.