Science and technology
working with nature- civil and hydraulic engineering to aspects of real world problems in water and at the waterfront - within coastal environments
In the first two blogs I have tried to introduce an overall picture of the Gift of Science & Technology (S & T) in defining and sustaining human civilizations. A big picture view of things is very helpful in understanding and judging a problem from different perspectives.
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With this and subsequent posts I will be entering into the core areas of my professional experience – in aspects of civil and hydraulic engineering within coastal environments. I will try my best to share some interesting topics in English. The task of discussing technical matters in plain language is not an easy one but that should not deter us. I hope that my scientific publications, contributions to the Coastal_List – an internet world forum of coastal scientists and engineers at the University of Delaware, and teaching of ocean engineering courses at the Florida Institute of Technology, will be helpful in this regard.
Before I do so, I think it is appropriate to spend a little time on clarifying some of the premises on which this and other discussions will be based. First, where do engineers stand in the S & T field? Let me try to answer the question from a civil/hydraulic engineering point of view.
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In the discipline of civil/hydraulic engineering, applied science provides the baseline knowledge on data and analysis, while technology provides tested products and materials. The role of an engineer is to find solutions to a given problem using resources from these two sources. To do it successfully, it is important for engineers to understand the necessary basics of the S & T. Failing in this matter affects the soundness of an engineer’s judgment. Therefore engineers are part of the S & T endeavors by being intricately involved in the development and progress – sometimes working at the forefront, but most often in the practical applications of science and technological advances to the real-world problems. In very challenging cases, engineers do their own science and technological investigations when S & T advances appear inadequate or unsatisfactory for a specific problem.
Engineering is defined as the profession of applying technical, scientific and mathematical knowledge to plan, design and implement measures that are economical, harmless, safe and sound. Engineering professionals are considered as problem solvers.
Is modern engineering education adequate to prepare students to see problems from different perspectives? Some people tend to think it is not adequate and that the employers should also share the roles of training. Without going along that line, it is important to consider the common view of some people about engineers. The most common view is that engineers have tunnel visions of things. If this view is correct, it is very serious because engineering is supposed to be a creative profession. Unless engineers see a problem from different perspectives, it becomes difficult for them to appreciate multiple aspects of a problem, and be creative and innovative in their judgments. But some others tend to argue that the tunnel vision of engineers is the unfortunate outcome of their own pursuit of perfection requiring them to focus on details. Yet there are others who think that stereotyping engineers as such amounts to blocking their career path in the corporate hierarchy. Whatever may be the case, engineers shoulder huge professional, ethical and legal responsibilities not only for the technical soundness of the proposed measures they propose, but also for the projects’ economy, safety and impact. These are all the more reasons why engineers should have a wide vision of things.
I have used plural words like solutions and measures to indicate that engineers need to be creative to come up with a range of alternative solutions rather than a single one. I remember attending a meeting during my early career where we were reviewing one of our projects with a Dutch Government expert. The expert told us very bluntly that he would not accept a solution unless a range of alternatives were examined showing pros and cons of each one.
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The reason for citing this simple encounter is to indicate that creativity and due diligence are two important requirements expected of an engineer to find a smart solution from an array of probable alternatives. Of course, many problems that engineers deal with, on day-to-day businesses are rather routine established undertakings. In many such projects, engineering is reduced to the job of a technician or a money-manager. The problem is that if they do such jobs for long, their technical and creative prowess are likely to loose sharpness with the sad consequences that the engineered solutions may lack substance and become unattractive and indefensible.
When one thinks about the word engineering itself, it is often applied in a broader sense outside technical disciplines. People talk about politicians, planners and diplomats coming to an engineered solution. In these problem solving works, it is implied that, like in engineering, several alternatives are examined by screening, playing with and trading off criteria and constraints to arrive at a solution that all could agree upon.
Often confusions arise on the roles of engineers and scientists in hydraulic and coastal engineering problems. Although both the disciplines overlap in some areas, they do see problems from different perspectives. Let me try to illustrate a scenario to show the difference in perspectives between a scientist and an engineer.
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Let us ask both a single question, what is the applicable wave climate in this area of the coast relevant for design? An oceanographer would probably say, this is what we have measured and modeled . . . A smart engineer, on the other hand, having real-world application in mind would hesitate to answer directly and would probably say, . . . we have these, but . . . Why so? The hesitation is not an indication of the engineer’s inability, it is rather caused by the thinking that he or she would probably use the measured and modeled information, but only after examining them from the perspectives of adequacy, safety and risk, applicable codes and regulations. Applicable codes and regulations are minimum standards, which engineers must follow as a guideline and comply with them to avoid legal challenges.
This leads us to say that the difference in perspectives between the two professions – is not in the process of analyzing a problem per se but in the goal – how and what they deliver in the end or supposed to do so. After all, an engineer is a scientist first. Further, both are well poised to deliver a smart answer or solution when they manage to philosophize an issue without carrying the baggage of a philosopher. The advantage with this line of thinking is that – it broadens the horizon of one’s mind to see things from both short and long term perspectives – further enabling him or her to see things from all different angles – their solutions, effects and implications. It is encouraging to note that at least two documents of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine – NAP 18722 and NAP 24988 have shed new lights on the necessity of collaborative and interdisciplinary thinking.
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We have talked about learning from nature during other occasions. In this blog I like to highlight a concrete example of that notion. I do this by paying tribute to a creature that has important lessons to teach us. This little amazing creature is none other than a North American Beaver.
I often post the image of a Beaver and the dam it builds on the clip board in my office with the caption, who is the better hydraulic engineer? Some of my colleagues might have thought I was challenging them. In fact, I was challenging all to think and understand how a Beaver could do things.
How the hell do Beavers know where and how to put the anchor-twigs and branches? How do they place piece by piece to weave the dam so meticulously and diligently? How can they be so creative in finding and selecting the right materials? They never stop repairing and improving their creation. Not only that - the completed Beaver dam never blocks the entire flow; rather it lets some water to continuously trickle down to support downstream aquatic lives.
The Beaver invite us to challenge its creativity, and its diligent and meticulous way of doing things. There are many examples of other creatures that show amazing fits of creativity and engineering. Perhaps it is our ignorance and inability to understand these amazing creatures that let us treat them as something unworthy of respect and care. Creatures like Beavers teach us to work with Nature rather than upsetting its processes. Working with Nature is only possible when we properly understand it. The understanding lets engineers develop the ability to be creative to generate alternatives and make scientifically and environmentally acceptable trade-off decisions.
Well, so far so good. But we should not forget one hard reality – and this is the fact that like with all disciplines, engineers work within the practical constraints of a work place, administrative framework, cost, schedule and clientele. The luster of performance, creativity and innovation does suffer by constraints and circumstances that are beyond the control of an able engineer.
One of my friends said, the topics you are talking about are very good and make sense. But how important are they in terms of helping an engineer in his or her career path? Do sincerity and professionalism really matter in a culture of showmanship, dishonesty and elbowing out each other?
Well, that is an entirely different topic but an important and practical one, not only for an engineering profession but also for others. I tend to be an optimist however.
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Here is an anecdote to ponder:
The disciple asked the master, “Sir, I thought all we needed were concrete and steel.”
The master smiled and looked away, “No surprise there. Umm! I am wondering where I can find some fresh air of alternatives.”
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- by Dr. Dilip K. Barua, 26 May 2016
In a short blog posted before, I have introduced the idea about the Gift of Science and Technology (S & T) in defining and sustaining world civilizations. The role of this S & T sector of human activity is unlike any other – it is the foundation on which other sectors must rely in order to thrive successfully. The words primitive, backward or advanced used to describe and characterize a society, are nothing but a reference to the level or standard of S & T of that particular civilization. It is the S & T sector that has discovered and invented the elements of the Wheel of Progress, and human prosperity depends on how well the Wheel is rolled on to the future (image credit: anon).
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Who are these individuals in the S & T endeavors on whom social progress relies so much? What motivates them? Let us try to go back in time to answer the questions.
Necessity is the mother of invention – that is where we need to begin. Survival instincts led early humans to innovate, to develop and perfect tools. One thing leads to another in the process of reincarnating knowledge and expertise – a process responsible for contributing to the social progression by leaps and bounds, or in a slow pace. It was the survival instincts of our early ancestors that motivated the smartest ones to think freely and creatively to develop tools and methods. Therefore we can safely say that it is the freedom of thinking and creativity in our genes that are responsible for turning the Wheel of Progress and prosperity. The smartest ones came from all walks of life – monks, philosophers, craftsmen and technicians, to name some. Many were self-motivators driven by curiosity, freedom of thinking and creativity. They were not called scientists or engineers – these professional labels came only after modern techniques of managing things were conceived.
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If one looks at the long history of Chinese civilization, it would be clear how prolific Chinese scientists and engineers have been. There were hardly any areas of science, technology and engineering that escaped Chinese thinking, discovery and invention. In the Indian subcontinent, pre-Buddha Indus civilization, Buddha’s enlightened teaching (563 – 483 BCE), and post-Buddha developments at the world’s second earliest university at Nalanda (5th – 12th century CE) touched many aspects of spirituality, rational thinking, science and technology.
Similar progresses happened in other corners of world. Notable among them were the civilizations that flourished in Egypt, Native America, in the states of modern Middle East, and Greek and Roman empires of Europe. We tend to think that these ancient civilizations are isolated, but archeological findings that come to light now and then, suggest that there have been cross-fertilization and cross-breeding among cultures. Conquests and the zeal to propagate religious teachings led the way in many respects. But perhaps more than we like to think, it was the migration of our ancestors in search of food and better living that made transfer of knowledge possible across cultures.
In ancient times, it was most often the royal patronage that inspired master technicians and master craftsmen to innovate. It was the need for defense, and the desire for comforts of royals and nobility that drove the S & T sector growth. Other areas of quests for better living also played a role, but perhaps not to a substantial degree. It could be imagined that during this period, freedom and creativity were limited by the wishes of the royal patrons. Was this approach in the historic past destined to stagnate or fail?
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The destiny was not clear until Europeans joined the foray. The European Renaissance (14th to 17th century CE) following the dark ages of Papal theocracy ushered in rejuvenated freedom in thinking and creativity. The pioneers including the new settlers in America collected and absorbed accumulated ancient knowledge, tools and methods from across cultures and refined them in workable forms that modern humans inherited. These new S & T endeavors have one distinct difference from others in the past. It was the drive to make huge profit from knowledge and inventions by producing things in a large scale for mass consumption. When masses are included in the equation – there appears another dimension to humans’ collective freedom, creativity and progress.
While being the engine of progress, does profit also have the seeds of steering the S & T sector in the wrong direction? Well, things rarely progress well unless a framework of checks and balances is established. Perhaps that is where the roles of people, democracy and good governance are so important to steer things in the RIGHT direction, but without restricting freedom and creativity.
Did everything go alright in the S & T progression? Most likely answer is yes because innovations are reflections of time and place to which they belong. However, we could imagine when applications of combustion engines were proposed, someone might have thought it was a stupid idea to cover the whole world with steel rail lines or cover Earth with pavements of concrete and asphalt. Others might have questioned why the S & T guys could not come up with better systems. It is not important whether or not those comments have really occurred, what is important is the fact that constructive comments and criticisms are always helpful in moving forward. The combustion engine technology was a breakthrough and it generated many other sets of supporting S & T innovations. One thing leads to another – all are tied to the universal knot of cause and effect.
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In time, other services of economic activity evolved to fundamentally avail the pieces of the S & T pie, and managing the system by identifying and creating demand opportunities to distribute and sell the products. There came the financier or investor, the economists, the planners, the health care sector, the administrative outfits of political rule, bureaucracy, judiciary, media, law enforcement and security establishments. This means that in the modern management framework, support services play the role of a partner in rolling the Wheel. But in this framework there will always be some who would have the luxury of riding the Wheel at ease.
Most often we see terms like nerds and geeks to describe the S & T people in a negative sense. What a terrible way to assume these poor souls as such – treating them like social outcasts, but who work hard to bring comforts to people’s lives! I am tempted to highlight some materials from a parody Shoe Invention by Bengali Nobel laureate poet Rabindranath Tagore (1861- 1941).
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Once upon a time a King was disgusted with dusts and dirt sticking to his feet. He asked his court to find a solution. The court issued an order to dust all the walkways and roads so that no dirt could ever touch the King’s feet. As cleaning went on and on, the whole kingdom became so dusty that it was difficult to breathe. The King demanded an answer of the mess – the court started blaming each other but promised to find another solution. It came up with a brilliant idea of covering the walkways and roads with hide. Cobblers were found to do the task. But there were not enough hide to do the job. One courageous nerdy cobbler suggested that instead of covering the land it would make sense to cover the King’s feet. The court members became furious at the daring suggestion. How would they touch the King’s feet to bow and kiss! They decided to take the poor cobbler to the King to be hanged. The King started hearing the angry complaints of the audacious suggestion by the untouchable cobbler. He looked at the cobbler and said, “Let me see what you have got,” The poor cobbler trembling in fear presented the shoe he made. The King got the shoes washed to cleanse of the untouchable stains, but after wearing the shoe, he became very pleased and asked the court to reward the poor cobbler. Seeing the pleasure of the King, members of the royal court started fighting among themselves to claim the credit for the idea. The poor cobbler was caught, paid some pennies and was ordered to vanish from the kingdom so that the truth would never surface.
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Well, we need nerds and geeks to carry us forward with the S & T innovations that knock at our door virtually everyday. It is their innovations in transportation and communication that have transformed the world so much so that it is becoming smaller and smaller bringing cultures together. Internet communication has opened the vista of resources and knowledge to most people around the world. In a profit making framework it is impossible to stop the S & T innovations. But sometimes innovation and progress appear so overwhelming that the future of mankind comes into question – the question of greed and malpractice, of wrong hands getting the control, or of the likelihood of disruption and modification of the natural evolution of human race and social living.
Well, what can humans do? Like everything else, wherever lies the engine of progress, there also lies the seed of abuse. Collectively we have an option not to choose the later however.
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Here is an anecdote to ponder:
The disciple asked the master, “Sir, I am very inspired to be a part in turning the wheel.”
The master smiled, “I am really disappointed to hear that! I thought it was much better to ride the wheel.”
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- by Dr. Dilip K. Barua, 19 May 2016