21 June 2011

Engineering by Numbers

I have been impressed by several blog posts lately, but particularly the work of Joe Dunckley at War on the Motorist. I like the post about the DfT because it seems to justify all those secret thoughts that there is just something wrong with the way things are done, but no obvious way of proving it. Now we know that the DfT is simply using stupid maths to justify its own preconceptions of how things ought to be. This seems to me to underline the notion that engineering is at its worst when solutions are arrived at by calculation alone. The rational mathemetician, unencumbered by the petty annoyances of the real world, can arrive at a clean and beautiful solution, which all adds up. However, a bit like painting by numbers, the result will be dull, lifeless and completely miss the point. The problem with seeing things through the prism of statistics is that it removes the opportunity for the beautiful mistake, or the unexpected incident. It misses the chance to grasp the brilliant dirtyness and unmissable messiness of (real) life.

Engineering ought to have design at its core. When it does, it can be fantastic, lyrical and stunning. As an example, the renowned structural engineer Peter Rice was a great exponent of this mix of the poetic and the practical. Renzo Piano, the Italian architect with whom Rice collaborated on some of the most imaginative buildings of the past 25 years, said Rice designed structures 'like a pianist who can play with his eyes shut; he understands the basic nature of structures so well that he can afford to think in the darkness about what might be possible beyond the obvious.'

Engineering should not be purely about reason, but should also be about art.

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