Bringing Order to the Universe

Engineering works in a kind of three-tier system of controls. At the most fundamental level, everything we do is controlled by the physical laws. Presumably if you had a solid enough grasp of Newtonian physics and material properties you wouldn’t need anything else to be a structural engineer. We can’t work around these laws yet, but some engineers occasionally give it a try and that doesn’t usually work out too well.

The second layer of control are “Design Standards” which comprise rules and guidelines for applying physics to your specific problem. This is really a collation of shortcuts through the first-principals calculations you could theoretically carry out for each design. Engineers are allowed to break these rules as long as they can demonstrate through a special study that they’re not breaking the fundamental laws of physics.

The third layer is the “good practice” guide. There are a billion ways to comply with the two sets of laws above, but there are a distinctly finite number of ways to do so in a convenient and cost-effective way. So engineers will always have some or other regime in place offering guidance on the type of solution for any given problem. In many cases, this guideline actually contains sufficient information that you can prepare most designs without directly accessing the previous two layers. At my firm this layer is sufficiently well detailed that our technicians and new graduates can actually produce bread-and-butter type designs.

I’ve presented this as a nice and clean arrangement, but unfortunately there are actually a lot of bits that for one or other reason don’t tidily present themselves. My favourite example of this is soil mechanics, which is an area where the underlying physics are so complex that nobody really knows for sure what’s going on. If you had infinite resources for any specific job you could probably do sufficient testing to find out everything you need, but typically we just take a conservative guess and move on. We operate, in other words, almost totally in the third layer.

One of my periodically invoked functions in the office is to determine what the best practice for design or detailing is. It’s a kind of cumulative and ongoing process, but about 6 months ago I compiled an internal practice guideline for everything we do with any frequency. The upshot of that is that in our office if someone does something in a way I haven’t prescribed one of two things is happening. Firstly, it could be that they’ve encountered something I haven’t forseen. This happens from time to time on our weirder or less frequent jobs. There isn’t a nice and tidy recipe for doing anything over about 4 storeys unless it’s nice and regular. Though even then the general principals I’ve set out should offer some guidance. The second option is that they think they know better than me. It’s really that simple: they think about whichever problem and decide they know how to handle it better than I do. There’s no way it can be not-me-specific, though I try not to take it personally.

Ultimately however, I am not the arbiter of a design’s fortune. Totally impersonal forces of nature will eventually rule on which approach was better for some things. It’s a waiting game for the Big One ™ we’re always being promised by those doom-laden adverts on TV.

As an arrangement for human activity, I think this is relatively uncommon. While the physical universe remains a constant we all need to struggle against, the most fundamental level of rule-structure for most human activities isn’t particularly well understood. This is especially true of ensemble efforts such as roleplaying, but anyone claiming to have a strong formulation of the rules governing literature, for example, is probably a snake oil salesman in their spare time. Formulations like Campbell’s monomyth are useful and cool, but they really do fall short of forming a fundamental law-set. For myself, I see things like that as being much closer to a set of design standards verging on practice guides.

However you slice it though to examine your cartesian ghosted-machine, I think you really do need to look as fundamentally as possible at the rules governing your life. I have found in the course of my life that there is an ever-lasting great struggle between two dichotomous positions. One group consider all rules to be essentially arbitrary and hence easily disregarded, while the other group happily assume that the chain from “fundamental world law” to “don’t park here” is perfectly formed.

I have been accused of lacking respect for rules, and I think that’s largely true. I am just arrogant enough to assume that whatever situation presents itself, that I know at least as much as the rule-makers. Especially when they haven’t littered their best-practice guides with references to the design standards and fundamental laws. This has been certainly been true in my undergraduate academic career. Perhaps this attitude does doom me to the sidelined life of the eccentric, but I like to think that eventually it will put me into the same place I’ve reached as an engineer: a rule maker.

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