Thursday 24 November 2016

Among Engineers

Much as I respect my colleagues and love working in The Institute, the very expensive education part of me doesn't get much watering. For that, I have to go to Wexford Science Café or up to the ould alma mammy Trinity College Dublin. I was conflicted last Tuesday because it was Third Tuesday and so a SciCaff evening but I was also invited to dins at TCD: diary clash! SciCaff happens every month but free dinner at TCD occurs only once every tuthree years . . . so I went up to The Smoke.

Last time I attended such an event, I had a fascinating conversation about a re-birth of the subject of anatomy effected by the advent of 3-D printers. That also served as a vehicle for a rant about science policy and not trying to control the direction of funding / research / teaching toooo much. We none of us know whence the truly game-changing inventions and discoveries are going to pop up. Last Tuesday, I was invited to a celebration of the 175th Anniversary of the foundation of the TCD School of Engineering. The man who pushed that boat out in 1841 shares a surname with me and there is evidence a story that we are rellies. If someone can tie the 19thC engineer back to the Big House in King's County, then we'd be 8th cousins 4 times removed. He died about a decade after my grand-father was born in The Big House. The upshot, anyway, was that I was invited to attend the unveiling of a plaque commemorating my illustrious ?relative, hear a key-note address by Ireland's most famous living engineer, and get fed. All good fun.

The Great Man was reading his speech [tsk!] about rivetting [it's what engineers do: rivets] war-stories:
  • launching Sea Quest the first North Sea oil-rig at Harland & Wolf
  • the monster 500 tonne Airbus A380, the tail-plane of which is as wide as the wings of a Boeing 737
  • the super short drive shaft of SS Southern Cross and SS Canberra [the funnel's at the back!] 
  • the logistics of getting gas to almost every home in England from the Isle of Grain . . . assuming the SS Richard Montgomery doesn't blow it all up. 
That's a taste of the range of projects and companies where John Parker has been solving problems since he was an apprentice naval architech in the 1960s. Another chunk of his talk was about 'turning around' now moribund but previously successful engineering companies. In all cases, an element of the problem was inflexible, unimaginative and stodgy management whose competence was waaaay below their pay-grade.

Towards the end of his talk, the reading-light on the lectern failed. Without missing a beat, he shifted to the over-head projector on the desk nearby muttering "we have a solution", but the OHP wouldn't work either, so he drifted over to the emergency exit light; continuing his talk the while! But there were 100 other engineers in the room, many of them venerable, all by training problem-solvers and one came down the seat tiers with his smart-phone on 'torch'. It turned out later that the torch-bearer was the retired Chairman of the Commissioners of Irish Lights! Ya couldn't make it up, boys.

At drinkies before the Gala Dinner, I rocked up to the first group of chatting chaps [very few women in attendance] and introduced myself. We got to talking about the ethics of bribery when building bridges in the Third World.  I said it didn't only happen for engineers. In the early 90s, there was a project to look into the genetic diversity of African and Indian cattle that eventually became the dual domestication hypothesis. They needed to send their two very young Effectives out to India to take blood samples. That required shipping a few crates of equipment and supplies out to Mumbai and the paperwork had to be signed off by the Head of Finance of TCD. The HoF was nearing retirement and used to more leisurely and less expensive pursuits than international molecular biology. Indeed his formal job title was probably something suitably 18thC like "The Keeper of the Provost's War-Chest" His code of conduct baulked at a line item on paper work for the bills of lading "Bribes . . . £200". He was persuaded eventually that if he wouldn't sign then the £200,000 project would be "at nothing": the crates wouldn't get through Customs & Excise without the lubrication of dash.  It's long-and-long too late to ask my reasonably honest father how much loot he had to carry in his case when selling missile guidance systems to Greece & Turkey; Chile & Argentina in the 1970s.

This talk about honesty and getting the job done edged into teaching Ethics to students.  One of the chaps had a pot of ethically edgy thought-experiments that he put to his students to get them to reflect on where they could cut-corners. Engineering is a lot about cutting corners: finding solutions to physical problems that are cost-effective. So that the steel ordered is enough to hold the building up but not so much as to occlude all the windows. I was well-impressed by this one "Would it be a good idea to develop a bio-degradable land-mine?"

That is a shocking timely and timeless question. It resonates with Jonathan Pie's contemptuous dismissal of The Left now that Trump has been elected. His position is that the liberal establishment took the no-brainer position in dealing with the Trump issues. They didn't see the need to debate with Trump's supporters because Trump was a buffoon, a net-exporter of US jobs, a sexist, a racist and generally a Bad Egg. You are not going to persuade people of the correctness of your political, social and economic analysis by locking yourself up in Castle Certainty or Chateau Moral Rectitude. Previous US Presidents have been serial shaggers out of wedlock, drunks, gamblers, and living on money which was of dubious provenance. Matter a damn, so long as they did the job?

The easy way out of the land-mine question is allll wet: war is evil so we should have nothing to do with it, sweep our cloak of goodness about us and leave the stage. I seem to remember that our Student's Union got all hot-and-bothered in the 1970s because the TCD School of Engineering had secured a contract from the US Defense Department to develop better ball-bearings for tank turrets. War is a Bad Thing and always has been but we still have war and land-mines are super efficient at interdicting territory between armies: easy and safe to distribute, cheap, devastatingly effective at maiming young men of a different colour / religion / uniform. Cleaning them up afterwards, especially if you have lost the war, is much less easy - not so very different from decommissioning nuclear power stations. Land mines with a half-life of 2 years? Maybe that is a worthy aim for an engineer's PhD project? Is it less moral than cycling round Kampuchea dealing post hoc with civilian leg-loss? If you find that an easy question with a black and white answer, you're a better person than me altogether.  When I say The Boy is an engineer, I am prouder than the clichĂ© Jewish Mamma with her "My son the Doctor . . ."

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