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MENTAL FURNITURE #9

Engineering

©1997 Dennis Leri

"There's no success like failure and failure is no success at all." Bob Dylan

"Life is trouble." Moshe Feldenkrais

There's probably no profession more misunderstood than engineering. The most general description of the profession of engineering is "a field of study or activity concerned with deliberate alteration or modification in some particular area." To engineer is to, "Arrange, contrive, or bring about, especially artfully." (The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary) Moshe Feldenkrais was a very, very good engineer.

I recommend for your reading pleasure the book To Engineer Is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design by Henry Petroski. It's easy to read and you'll find yourself underlining sections of the book as well as quoting stories and anecdotes to your friends. Petroski says, "I believe...that the ideas of engineering are in fact in our bones and part of our human nature and experience." and, "The idea of design -- of making something that has not existed before -- is central to engineering, and I take design and engineering to be virtually synonymous..." (To Engineer, pg. xi) And then this, "I believe that the concept of failure... is central to understanding engineering, for engineering design has as its first and foremost object the obviation of failure. ...To understand what engineering is and what engineers do is to understand how failures can happen and how they can contribute more than successes to advance technology."(To Engineer, pg. xii)

Engineering does not share the objective of science which seeks to understand and explain the given world. Nor is it that of art which, unfettered by the so-called Laws of Nature, creates worlds at the limits of the Imagination. Although engineering is most appreciated when science and art combine to make an aesthetically pleasing creation, the objective of engineering is to create new worlds out of the materials of this world and in obedience with its laws. While the honeybee's honeycomb has had a changeless design for eons, human structures are constantly changing and evolving. Human engineers develop new materials that lend themselves to new designs and all this leads inevitably to new ways that things can go wrong. Engineered things and systems (like irrigation canals) came into being long before the pyramids. Now, engineering is evidenced in virtually everything we know. The process of design differs greatly in its application, use of materials and how to arrange them.

The birth of design process begins with ourselves. Petroski, "Indeed, just as we all have experienced the rudiments of artistic creativity in the childhood masterpieces our parents were so proud of, so we all have experienced the essence of structural engineering in our learning to balance first our bodies and later our blocks in ever more ambitious positions. We have learned to endure the most boring of cocktail parties without accident of either our bodies or our glasses succumbing to the force of gravity, having long ago learned to crawl, to sit up, and toddle among our tottering towers of blocks. If we could remember our early efforts of ours to raise ourselves up among the towers of legs of our parents and their friends, then we can begin to appreciate the task and the achievement of engineers, whether they be called builders in Babylon or scientists in Los Alamos. For all their efforts are to one end: to reassemble Nature into something new, and above all to obviate failure in the effort." And, "...the history of engineering... may be told in its failures as well as its triumphs. Success may be grand, but disappointment can often teach us more." (To Engineer, pg. 8-9)

How can disappointment be a teacher? More directly, what means does an engineer employ to learn from mistakes and failures? Before going directly to those questions it will behoove us to consider them in the light of our own engineering training. In a beautiful chapter entitled Falling Down Is Part of Growing Up Petroski links together the elements of our apprenticeship with the material world. He begins with our own developmental movements and extends the consideration to all the things we have to bump up against, fall over, climb up on or through, lift up and put down, and so on. He ties it together with the implicit engineering education we get in fairy tales and nursery rhymes. There's: Jack and Jill went up the hill /To fetch a pail of water; Three wise men of Gotham/Went to sea in a bowl/If the vessel had been stronger/My song would have been longer; Ring around the rosie/A pocket full of posies/Ashes, ashes/We all fall down; and then there's Humpty Dumpty or The Story of the Three Pigs and the Wolf who huffed and puffed and blew down two of the pigs' ill conceived houses. And so many more. Petroski, "Our own bodies, the oral tradition of our language and our nursery rhymes, our experiences with blocks and sand, all serve to accustom us to the idea that structural failure is part of the human condition."(To Engineer, pg. 19) In later childhood through our play we learn that there are limits to the amount of abuse a toy can take. We learn how not to build a fortress. We learn what is necessary to burn something we would rather cook. We also learn how to improvise, to repair and to rebuild with a better idea as to the requirements for greater success. Simply because we made them, we may even come to cherish our makeshift toys and buildings more than those provided to us.

The overarching principle of design is "less is more." But how much less is "less" and is it the reverse of "more" or is less something else? In other words, while economics dictates that cheaper is better, safety dictates that one should only take calculated risks. But when combining the ever changing characteristics of materials and the progressive improvement of engineering principles one must expect the unforeseen. So, engineers always overbuild. They do so to take into account most of what may be unforeseen. But accidents happen. And when they do engineers have incredible tools, actual and conceptual, at their disposal to analyze what went wrong. Failure analysis as it is called has as its aim to seek to assemble the whole into something greater than the sum of its broken parts. The investigators would cause Sherlock Holmes to be envious. "Finding the true causes of failure often take as much of a leap of the analytical imagination as original design concepts."(To Engineer, pg. 184) Recall physicist Richard Feynman's elegantly simple analysis and explanation of the Shuttle disaster. Feynman showed that while it was the rubber O-rings that were the material cause, the actual cause was poor design and lack of project oversight. While it may prove embarrassing to the designers of a failed project to have their failures open to such scrutiny, the integrity of the profession demands that if there is a cause (or causes) of failure then it must be found out and rectified in subsequent designs. I was in Israel in 1979 when the Three Mile Island nuclear plant nearly melted down. Moshe, who helped design Israel's nuclear power plants, said that when the Israeli's built their plant, it was a combination of the best of French, English, German, Russian and American designs. He said that there were numerous arguments as to how to best build a safe plant. The problem that occurred at Three Mile Island was predicted by the Israeli designers. They built theirs differently.

Engineering design shares certain characteristics with the positing of scientific theories. Scientists hypothesize about the behavior of our given universe, whether atoms, honeybees or planets, while engineers hypothesize about assemblages of concrete and steel that they arrange into a world of their own making. Although we may not realize it, our belief that all honeycombs have a hexagonal shape, or that the Sun will rise every morning in the East are not incontrovertible facts but hypotheses. While much is made of the notion of scientific hypothesis, at its heart it is guessing. It may be very educated guessing but it is guessing nevertheless. Hypotheses in engineering, rather than testable conjectures about the Universe, are constructions testable by how well they perform the functions they were designed for. While we point to buildings, bridges, electronic gadgets and jets as obvious products of the engineering mind virtually everything in our human world has some amount of design science in it.

Bridges are amongst the most beautiful and recognizable of human creations. They are designed to span a river, a gorge, some sort of gap. They connect something not previously connected. Or, they connect in new ways some things already connected. They allow movement usually in two directions. As beautiful as the Golden Gate bridge is in itself, of equal beauty is the view it allows while serving its function to connect San Francisco to Marin County. And since they establish new connections or reconnect old things in new ways, why not think of an ATM lesson as a bridge? As design structures ATM lessons fulfill the criterion of less is more. And the process one enters into doing an ATM lesson gives us a very tangible experience of less is more. By design, lesson structure and function contribute to an understanding of human structure and function. Our interpretations of a lesson instruction are our best guesses, our own hypotheses, as how to best proceed. Embedded in the lesson, and in fact one to the things to be rediscovered by the student, is how to 'remember' the best guesses of our ancestors or our own personal history. Through a recollection and a reshuffling of our impersonal phylogenetic adaptations and our own personal ontogenetic learnings we can recreate ourselves. ATM lessons are designed to give us a sense of the narrowness of our understanding while at the same time putting that narrowness on a very broad species specific sensory motoric base. Our 'narrowness' and our sense of limitation are learned and as such they can be relearned or unlearned. When our guesses fail us we are provided with the impetus to learn. But that impetus must be given direction through the careful design that underlies the best ATM and FI lessons. Our self generated constructions act as our bridge from old outworn habits to new behaviors. Disappointment can be a profound teacher if we have the means to reassemble our experience in new and fresh ways.

Someday someone will recognize Feldenkrais for the genius of his design science. In the pursuit of human development, understanding and awareness certainly Moshe Feldenkrais and his method are well recognized. But recognition for how a lesson "lessons" is still long overdue. For example, the reversal of proximal and distal, so ubiquitous in lessons is an idea or intuition that would occur to an engineer but not to a biologist, psychologist, or anthropologist. The bridge that supports us as we travel over it can be used without understanding how it was built. But, while we can use a bridge or a lesson and not know who built or how, it never-the-less was engineered by an engineer. If design is making something that has never existed before to exist and given that ATM and FI lessons never existed before, then certainly Moshe was a designer.


Republished on this webpage with the friendly permission of Dennis Leri.
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