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I've been thinking a lot recently about what you might call the "Zen of engineering.”
No, I’m not a Buddhist, and I don’t go for meditation retreats. I'm an engineer, as engaged in the world as I can be – sometimes a little too engaged, if you want to know the truth.
When I say the “Zen of engineering” I’m not talking about religion. I’m talking about the absorption of years of training and practice so that technique has become second nature. I’m talking about the ability a veteran engineer develops to see or even “feel” the bigger picture while maintaining mastery of technical details. To me, engineering Zen is happening when I know the proximate answer to a problem almost in my gut, when I know what’s right without reference to computers or calculators or models.
My thinking about the “Zen of engineering” has also been affected by the work of some great engineer-teachers of our era. Two members of Duke University’s fine engineering faculty deserve special mention.
In 1996, Professor Adrian Bejan formulated “The Constructal Law" of Nature. Bejan’s Constructal Law sees design as a characteristic of every natural or man-made system. To me, his work means that Nature herself is a mechanical engineer. Through Bejan’s lens we perceive her working silently, elegantly, endlessly – efficiently determining how to refine every system. The ultimate Zen engineer. The better we emulate Nature’s engineering, the better ours seems to become.
Professor Henry Petroski points out that engineering very often leads us into areas of scientific study, not the other way around. The steam engine was born before its workings were fully understood. The Wright Brothers' flying machine gave rise to the broad study of aerodynamics. In other words, human beings’ primal drive to engineer our world can and often does precede our ability to understand it. Great leaps forward in engineering may happen first, Zen-like and naturally, into areas we only dimly understand. Many times, we build a system before we step back to study it. Only then can we strive to understand underlying scientific principles.
Here’s maybe another way to see it: “engineering Zen” is less about calculation than it is about insight. As we enter the era of “Big Data,” an engineer’s insight may well become more important than his or her ability to crunch numbers. Thus an interesting question arises: will we begin to recognize engineers for their wisdom as well as for their knowledge?
I don’t mean to denigrate the purely intellectual tools all engineers need. Obviously, we require knowledge and skills that take decades to attain. But like a Zen master, a master engineer devotes him or herself to a lifetime of practice. And only after years spent absorbing the discipline can he begin to transcend all that study and access the (Zen) zone of insight I’m talking about.
Whether you agree or disagree, I hope you’ll write in and sound off. I look forward to the conversation.
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— Nathan Johnson, ASME Member since 2002
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