Friday, February 22, 2013

A Fine And Enviable Madness

(mostly reposted from February, 2010)

"... it was, in fact, a fine and enviable madness, this delusion that all questions have answers, and nothing is beyond the reach of a strong left arm." -- from The Mote in God's Eye, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

I love my job. I love the alchemy that takes the stuff of daydreams, and spins it into hard, tangible reality. What we have dreamed, we have done; generations of men dreamed of flight, and dreamed of touching the stars ... and when you look up tonight, you'll see airplanes drifting across the sky in exactly the way that a hundred tons of aluminum shouldn't, and five of our spacecraft are sailing out into interstellar space. Generations of physicians dreamed of a world without disease ... and in one singular case, the dream was realized. I've been vaccinated for smallpox, but most people younger than me haven't.

This is National Engineers' Week. We celebrate it during the week of George Washington's birthday, in honor of our first President's first career as a surveyor. The mechanic arts as they were called then were recognized early to be key to both our prosperity and our security. Whenever America has faced a steep challenge, her engineers have always answered, and delivered the goods.

It's a profession that could easily lead to a swelled head, if Nature wasn't always there to take us down a notch or three as required. We rarely enjoy the "luxury" of hiding our mistakes. An unscrupulous doctor might hide their mistakes in the morgue, and an incompetent lawyer's mistakes vanish into the prison system. But an engineer's mistakes? They tend to come unglued with a loud enough BANG to make the evening news. We never have to look far for accountability, it always comes looking for us.

There are two ways to deal with that kind of responsibility. Some find it too heavy. The rest of us accept the responsibility, and the challenge. We enjoy knowing that our work counts for something. We don't dread the possibility of highly-visible failure; that motivates us to make our work as clean and error-free as we know how. The challenge -- the satisfaction of having done a difficult job well -- is a large part of what gets us out of bed most mornings.

It can be a crazy life sometimes. Schedules get very unpredictable, close to delivery time. But on the whole I wouldn't have it any other way. It truly is "a fine and enviable madness."

Hymn of Breaking Strain

by Rudyard Kipling

THE careful text-books measure
(Let all who build beware!)
The load, the shock, the pressure
Material can bear.
So, when the buckled girder
Lets down the grinding span,
The blame of loss, or murder,
Is laid upon the man.
Not on the Stuff - the Man!

But in our daily dealing
With stone and steel, we find
The Gods have no such feeling
Of justice toward mankind.
To no set gauge they make us -
For no laid course prepare -
And presently o'ertake us
With loads we cannot bear:
Too merciless to bear.

The prudent text-books give it
In tables at the end
The stress that shears a rivet
Or makes a tie-bar bend -
What traffic wrecks macadam -
What concrete should endure -
But we, poor Sons of Adam
Have no such literature,
To warn us or make sure!

We hold all Earth to plunder -
All Time and Space as well -
Too wonder-stale to wonder
At each new miracle;
Till, in the mid-illusion
Of Godhead 'neath our hand,
Falls multiple confusion
On all we did or planned -
The mighty works we planned.

We only of Creation
(Oh, luckier bridge and rail)
Abide the twin damnation -
To fail and know we fail.
Yet we - by which sole token
We know we once were Gods -
Take shame in being broken
However great the odds -
The burden of the Odds.

Oh, veiled and secret Power
Whose paths we seek in vain,
Be with us in our hour
Of overthrow and pain;
That we - by which sure token
We know Thy ways are true -
In spite of being broken,
Because of being broken
May rise up and build anew
Stand up and build anew.

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