Archives for posts with tag: engineering

I want to talk about bad ideas and good ideas.

Bad ideas originate from many directions. They can be based on the convictions of so-called gurus – the L. Ron Hubbards, or the Andrew Wakefields of this world – whose insane teachings are cherished like nuggets of gold by their many advocates. They can be based merely on a distrust of officialdom, such as is evident in the comments of the New World Order zealots, or the many and varied conspiracy-theorists in our midst. They can arrive from wishful thinking, like belief in angels or the Loch Ness Monster, or the idea that ancient aliens founded cities on the planet long before we arrived. They can be based on literal interpretations of ancient scriptures, evident in fundamentalist interpretations of Islam and Christianity. They can capitalise on fear or feed ancient prejudices, leading to pogroms, slavery and racism.

Bad ideas are like viruses. They are most successful when they exploit the parts of our brain that deal with our strongest emotions – love, fear, joy, loss and hatred. In this way they can persist for generations. Superstitions, astrology, homeopathy, fairy belief, white power, anti-semitism and witch-hunting all have a long, inglorious provenance, but this alone doesn’t make them good ideas. Not one bit.

Bad ideas inhabit a twilight zone, bolstered up by groupthink, forgiven with generous excuses and defended by Byzantine forms of apologetics. When the emperor has no clothes on, attacking the small child becomes the order of the day.

Bad ideas hurt. They sometimes kill. Quack medical practitioners, their heads stuffed with bad ideas, can give advice that endanger their clients’ health. Unscrupulous charlatans can empty the bank accounts of the unwary as they offer them false hope about themselves and loved ones. Governments have gone to war based on bad ideas. Bad ideas cause world leaders to bluster and prevaricate while the world’s climate changes, decade by decade.

Good ideas, by contrast, originate from systems that expose ideas to reality. When ideas don’t work, they are jettisoned in favour of better ideas. Over time, the best ideas rise to the top. Practical trades, such as plumbing and bricklaying, have no time for bad ideas, because they simply do not work. The currency of these professions are good ideas – ones that have stood the test of time, that do what they are intended to do.

Good ideas emerge from science and engineering all the time. We put men on the moon due to a string of great, practical ideas. The computer on your lap, that phone in your pocket, that car you drive, the pacemaker keeping your father’s heart ticking – they all happened because people built good ideas upon good ideas upon good ideas – a solid pyramid of innovation.

Good ideas are hard to come by. Bad ideas are ten-a-penny. In medicine, bad ideas cost lives, so there is a continual search for ideas that have the potential to do great good – to extend the quality of our lives and ease suffering. We’re still not there but each year a few new useful ideas are discovered. In the end, that’s a positive, hopeful story.

We look at race relations differently. We look at human rights and animal rights differently. We look at gender relations and sexuality differently – not because they are the faddish thing to do, but because they concur with objective reality. They match with how things really are when they are put to the test.

I understand the danger of bad ideas. I greatly value good ideas. And that is why I am a sceptic.

Jet Trails over Canberra-1

And yet, planes fly.

This is a phrase that often comes to mind when people question the value and utility of science, or diminish its importance in the world today.

It cuts through the objections: that science can be biased, or imperfect, or financially driven, or chaotic, or fraudulent, or philosophically unsound, or just one idea among many.

Sometimes, these criticisms are valid. There are many instances where science has been hampered by fraudulent and unethical behaviour, where scientists have taken appalling short cuts and or adjusted data because it didn’t fit preconceived notions, where bullying and a dogmatic over-reliance on unsound theories has hampered progress. You could write a book on it.

And yet, planes fly.

Big ones too. Gigantic 300 tonne planes, travelling at 900 kilometres per hour, at 40,000 feet above the ground. Right now, a few of them are routinely ploughing their way through the stratosphere en route to various destinations across the planet.

All this would not have been possible if it were not for the efforts of generations of scientists and engineers. These people sought to understand and exploit the physical properties of this world, using rational thought, experimentation and argument to allow us to leave the ground and do something that would have been unimaginable to countless generations.

When I say “yet planes fly”, I am only tipping a snowflake on the tip of an enormous iceberg. And yet, computers work. Washing machines work. Mobile phones work. We’ve put men on the Moon. Cured and treated cancers. Eradicated ancient diseases. Increased food supply. People now live longer. Babies are born that otherwise wouldn’t be. Most children survive to adulthood. Mothers can better plan their families and their futures. We can peer back to the beginnings of time and examine the most fundamental components of the Universe. All this, and much more, because of science. All this, despite the problems inherent within the scientific process.

It may seem trivial to point to aeroplanes and these other examples and point them out as astonishing products of the scientific process. Even the most ardent pseudoscience devotee is likely to accept that science has yielded huge discoveries and benefits. The point, however, is that, faults and all, it remains the most successful mode of understanding the world and dealing with problems that humans have ever concocted. It has succeeded where mysticism, homeopathy, religion and new age doctrines have not. Indeed, they seem to occupy the ever-decreasing areas where significant progress is still limited.

Such an outlook could be dismissed as scientism: a view that science, on its own, can explain anything and solve any problem. This may not be true, or even possible; but science still remains the most powerful intellectual tool in our arsenal. When it comes to the pressing issues of the day, from global warming and climate change, disease management and genetic disorders, sanitation and overpopulation, I would prefer to have a bunch of scientists and engineers looking at these challenges than anyone else.

So when I see airplanes in the sky, it shows that, limited and all though are species are, and no matter how faulty our processes of discovery, we have nevertheless learned a lot about how the universe works and how we bring those insights to bear on real-life challenges. The problems of the coming century will be very different to those of the last one. They are likely to need the efforts of our best technical brains to tackle and solve. It’s time more people started to wake up to this.

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

– Arthur C. Clarke

A few days ago, I watched the Harry Potter finale with my kids in the cinema. After the film, one of my children asked me if I believed in magic; being a sceptical sort of person I admitted I didn’t. Magic is a relatively loosely defined term, but my bottom line is that “supernatural” phenomena have never been conclusively demonstrated or proven. Unless a compelling argument can be made, it appears that all objects in this universe act in accordance with natural laws.

Image by Don Solo (Flickr - CC Licensed)

The wizards and witches in Harry Potter have powers that certainly seem magical to us. They can “apparate” instantaneously from one place to another. They perceive memories from far-off times. They are armed with a variety of spells to disable opponents. Everything seems to have some sort of sentience. The magic in JK Rowling’s world is particularly appealing to us 21st Century folks. It is device based, utilitarian, networked. It mixes the physical universe with the virtual world of the Internet and gaming; strong reasons, in my mind, for the astonishing success of the books and movies.

Perhaps I am being a bit too harsh in not believing in magic, because to a medieval person, or a person who lived in Roman times, we live in truly extraordinary times. To them, we would all be wizards and witches. We can watch events and interact with people in other parts of the world. We move in metal carriages that require no oxen or horses. The greatest of these carriages fly above us and can even sail at incredible speeds above the sky itself. We have at our disposal wonderful materials – plastics, composites, semiconductors – that would be unimaginable by the medieval mind. Simple pills can be taken to cure what would have once been common ailments. We have created weapons of unimaginable strength and brutality. I could go on.

We don’t call this magic. We call it science. We call it engineering. We call it technology. It’s not magic because it is simply the laws of physics, chemistry and (increasingly) biology, applied in interesting ways to different challenges. The tools of the trade are not incantations but experimentation, imagination, analysis, criticism and frequent failure. The magical language is mathematics. Chemistry is our Potions class, Biology replaces Herbology and Computer Science supplants Divination.

Perhaps, in 500 years time, Harry Potter will be more akin to a documentary than to a fictional work. It may be possible to render oneself invisible, to flit in an instant through time and space or to backup one’s consciousness into safer, more robust objects; thereby achieving a kind of immortality. The people of that era would seem breathtakingly magical to us. That’s the wonder of science. The hard work of scientists today will pave the way to the magic of tomorrow.

Oh, and WordPress informs me that this is my 300th post since I began blogging in 2007. How did I ever manage that?

Art credit – Don Solo (Flickr, CC Licensed)

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