May 3, 2008

An Engineer's Apology..

Prelude - Hardy's 'A Mathematician's Apology'. A one-of-its-kind essay which gives a sneak peek into the mind of a mathematician.

Excerpts from the book:

"The function of a mathematician is to do something, to prove new theorems, to add to mathematics, and not to talk about what he or other mathematicians have done. .......there is no scorn more profound, or on the whole more justifiable, than that of the men who make for the men who explain. Exposition, criticism, appreciation, is work for second-rate minds.. "

"Good work is no done by ‘humble’ men. It is one of the first duties of a professor, for example, in any subject, to exaggerate a little both the importance of his subject and his own importance in it."

Mathematicians are a rare breed...an extremely gifted hashset of specimens endowed with an insatiable ego...They contribute more Mathematics, prove conjectures and add more theorems , not because they want them to be practically useful to the world, but because of the "intellectual curiosity, professional pride" they derive out of their research..Euler, one of Mathematics' greatest warriors, is known to have expelled a student from the university for having questioned him for the practical usefulness of a theorem..

One of the most elusive theoroms to be ever solved in Mathematics..the deceivingly simple Fermat's Last Theorem, was considered romantic and honored by the entire mathematical fraternity, not because proving it found an antidote to nuclear reactions, but because of the sensational pride associated with cracking a three-century-old riddle..Andrew Wiles finally proved the theorem after a decade of reclusive work...
And thus, mathematicians continue to live happily ever after....

Engineers on the other hand, solve equations for the sake of practical implications they have...While a mathematician judges a problem by its difficulty, an engineer judges it by its usefulness..And many a time, the supposed usefulness of the solution overshadows the beauty of the very problem that demands it...

Engineering is more sensibility than sense...To make things clearer, how many of us write beautiful code as against working code? And how would one define beauty in engineering? It is best left to the reader to answer that question..In my opinion, there is very little that an engineer can do with his aesthetic sense to satiate his voluptuous pride...

I am not apologizing on behalf of the engineering fraternity...Probably they have more practical reasons to be or not to be than any other exisiting ones...Am apologizing to the mathematical egotist hidden inside every engineer, who is denied a chance to surface in this engineering whirlpool...Warm Regards to thee....

PS - An equally controversial blog post...

7 comments:

Lakshmi said...

I can totally understand :)!

Subbu S said...

Working code? ya that reminds me of the time when I've to modify a perfectly working Cobol program where they named Variables A, B, C.. goes until Z & starts again like AA, AB, AC,.. Brilliant!

Everything has reason and a place & there is nothing to apologies
Tricky code for Geeks, Beautiful code for Academics, Maintainable codes for professionals and a just 'working code' for showing the importance of Maintainability :)

Ananth said...

The ability to produce beautiful mathematics is not a gift granted to every mathematician as is the ability to produce beautiful code.

Hardy laments here because all his life, he failed to produce anything beautiful or useful other than the discovery of Ramanujan, by his own admission. Probably a curse of his times where the wars required applied mathematics such as cryptography as opposed to abstract number theory.

Nevertheless, beauty in mathematics has an unfair advantage: The Colossus of Rhodes and the Library of Alexandria have long fallen. But the Prime Number Theorem and Euclid's Algorithm continue to linger in human consciousness.

Now, Software is more like the Colossus than the Prime Number Theorem. Only pedantic principles are eternally useful and the little beauty in those fundamental principles like say, self-balancing binary trees is lost because it is taught as something common place. Beauty in other facets of software is slowly destroyed by time. Which is why long standing design principles and systems (such as Unix) merit as much adulation as a Monet or a Picasso.

There is beauty all around in Software. And we are oblivious to it as we are to beauty in everything else until someone calls it beauty and stuffs it down our throats. In that sense, you might be interested in reading this book. (My favorite chapter of-course is "A Spoonful of Sewage").

The transient nature of beauty in our professions is worth bemoaning more than the lack of occasion to produce it. A hundred years from now, another Simon Singh might write a great romantic novel about how Don Knuth discovered the Dancing Links Algorithm and how beautifully it solves the exact cover problem. Maybe then, you will find peace with your profession ;-)

nash said...

I certainly was of your opinion about engineers solving equation for sake of practical implications. But practical and personal experience would allow me to say otherwise. You might get to talk and praise about the number of theorem's, but every theorem was written for solving a practical or say an engineering problem. There can be no engineering without maths and also vice versa. This might be a bold statement but it is so. The fact is we just know the tip of the ice berg of what the theorem is and the solution, a bit of research into why such a problem on the first hand, would probably lead to an engineering background more often than not.
-nash

Nithya said...

@Ananth

As I said in the post, it is best left to the reader to discern what beautiful code means..IMO, science or Maths is more beautiful because of its intrinsic uselessness ..you can do justice to the problem than the solution.

@Nash

I'd agree with you partially, but not totally. Not all math problems have an engineering background, there are exceptions, and those exceptions makes Math more beautiful...

Vinayak said...

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http://menteeworld.com/blogs/view_blog.php?blog=vinayak
this is the link to my blog.

Thanks
Vinayak

asicengineer said...

Hi,
Till date, i always thought that math was the language of the universe. So, some of the proven theorems which don't find any use right now, will probably find use much later. As always, physics banks on such unique solutions. Without Hamiltonial matrix, there is no quantum mechanics, but its importance wouldn't have been realized when it was first postulated.