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Sunday, November 07, 2010

A Note on the Philosophy of Engineering Research

Foreword to the PhD Thesis of Dr Cecilia Abecassis Empis.

A Note on the Philosophy of Engineering Research

With the arrival of the computer era came a desperate frenzy of research in all fields with an ever increasing urge to quantify, discretise and explicitly pick apart nature enabling its eloquent description using the languages of mathematics and physics.

This very urge appears to be our largest limitation in attaining a precise representation of nature. Nature is, by nature, a continuum with an infinity that can not be quantified as much in the infinite immensity of the universe’s expanse as in the infinite minuteness into which things can be dissected and in the natural continuum of anything in between, exemplified by the naturally recurring but non-recurrent irrational numbers of Pi, Euler and Fibonacci.

Nevertheless intrinsic to human nature is a desire to group things, categorise, to box knowledge into entities we can comprehend and computers have allowed us to do this more quickly. Part of this process requires an evaluation of what is to be done and what it is to be used for. Be it an equation that represents the physics of electricity, the theories that describe types of intelligence or music that depicts the dance of the bees, the limits of its “accuracy” always lie within the bounds of the assumed scale, an agreement of the axioms of compliance.

Engineering is precisely the art and craft of deciphering such problems. The skill lies in evaluating the scope of the conundrum and identifying the critical players. In outlining the discrete pieces of this puzzle, engineers have to untangle the fundamentals from the peripheral fillers. They then stand back and reason the rules of the game using them to discard unnecessary detail and weave back together the key pieces creating an optimal solution. Engineering is a mere translation tool that allows for the interpretation of nature in a way we can fathom.

It is important however to distinguish a “solution” from “natural reality”. With the computing world fast-appealing to more and more of our senses, it is often tempting to indulge in smaller and smaller dissections of our problems. As we become increasingly obsessed with intricate dependencies we run the risk of creating a solution that is self-fulfilling without realising it has departed so far from its application that it has become a mere representation of the human ego with little or no use beyond the amusement of a select few curious minds. Detail can lead to a false sense of proximity to nature whereas the very nature of engineering is to accept that any attempt to model nature will always fall short of perfect. Instead engineering embraces the asymptotic nature of complex solutions and opts for providing simple and effective shortcuts that are perfect if they solve the particular problem at hand within the scope of its axioms. Hence an engineer must be humble and not lose sight of the problem objectives, the initial assumptions and the scale delineating the limitations and applications of engineering work.

Engineering research aims to provide rational solutions that make daily life just a little bit easier in order to make time for sitting back, relaxing and to enjoy the awesomeness of the irrational, chaotic magnificence of nature.

In this light it is hoped this work will make a useful contribution.

by Cecilia Abecassis Empis

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