science vs engineering — observations #19

“Imagine that a [computer] screen adjustment knob or a keyboard key fell off and was lost. You could still use your computer. However, if you erased only one line of software code, say less than a millionth of an entire program, the odds are that the application software would not run at all.”

With this example, Daniel Lapin differentiates between things that are physical and things that are not, a train of particularly insightful thoughts that apply to science and engineering as well.  He defines two terms, physical and spiritual, and he specifies that spiritual does not mean religious–instead he intends to define a collection things that cannot be measured in the laboratory (happiness, well-being, wisdom, etc.). Lapin is defining a model for examining the world, one that may have limitations but is useful nonetheless.

He then explains “three rules that can help you distinguish between the physical and the spiritual.”

1. Physical things can be destroyed whereas spiritual things cannot.

2. Physical things can tolerate imperfection; spiritual things need to be precise.

3. The spiritual element of an event must precede its physical actualization.

The example in the introduction above illustrates the second point.  Software is a “spiritual” element, and hardware is not.  A monitor can tolerate small imperfections like broken knobs, but software may not function with a missing line of code or element of syntax.

He gives another example using architecture and blueprints.

On the drawings, you can see that the floor-to-ceiling heights at the two opposite ends of the great ballroom are both exactly, say, 10 feet. If you visited the hotel and accurately measured the height of the ceiling in the ballroom, you wouldn’t be surprised to find that it varies by as much as an inch or two when measurements are taken at different locations in the large room. This simply doesn’t matter in the real world. Nobody will notice the two-inch discrepancy, but eliminating that little discrepancy would involve the contractor in prohibitive expenses. However, if the blueprint lacked accuracy, then the entire integrity of the structure would be threatened.

Statistics is powerful enough to tell us precisely when the ceiling is not ten feet tall, even if it’s only off a fraction of an inch.

But that kind of precision doesn’t matter.

This difference is one of the difficulties in applying analytical tools of mathematics and statistics. This difference between the physical and the metaphysical is precisely the difference between science and engineering. Scientific ideas are precise, without imperfections.  Engineers, however, must accommodate imprecision and must do so robustly.

Leaders must understand these difference and know when to differentiate excellence and perfection.

Life is a journey. And these are observations from ours.


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