The Engineer's Curse

For the third time in the past year I have sat down to watch "The Wind Rises", the fictionalised biography of Jiro Horikoshi by Hayao Miyazaki and animated by Studio Ghibli, the title derived from a line in Paul Valéry's "The Graveyard by the Sea", "Le vent se lève! Il faut tenter de vivre!" In this tale, Jiro is an engineer who follows his childhood dreams of designing aircraft. However, the setting is imperial Japan in the 1930s and Jiro's employer, Mitsubishi, is under direction to build efficient planes for the purposes of warfare. This is, of course, quite contrary to the claim of Jiro's dream-figure, the Italian engineer Giovanni Battista Caproni who says: "Airplanes are not tools for war. They are not for making money. Airplanes are beautiful dreams. Engineers turn dreams into reality."

Engineers turn dreams into reality. Alas, Caproni's idealism runs against the harsh reality of politics and economics. Engineers are employed so they can make money for investors. Or they are directed by States, to make tools for war. In the course of the story, Jiro must make various aircraft, such as the Mitsubishi 1MF9 Falcon, a fighter plane, the Mitsubishi 1MF10, another fighter plane, the Mitsubishi A5M, another fighter plane, and of course the Mitsubishi A6M Zero. It was a particularly sad moment when Jiro, attempting to reduce the weight of one of the planes says: "One solution would be, we could leave out the guns". Which of course, would work. It would be a beautiful plane. But that's not what the military wants. Their planes are not designed for beauty, but for killing fellow human beings.

If someone had told me in my undergraduate days, when I was a student of politics, philosophy, and sociology, that I would in the future be employed as an engineer I probably wouldn't have believed it. To my mind at the time, engineers were a terribly conservative and often a boorish lot. In hindsight, the latter part was more of the undergraduate culture. But as the former, I had misinterpreted it. The conservative nature of engineers is because they understand that, unlike with people, you cannot change the opinion of reality through appeals to morality or aesthetics. Further, they attempt their designs from minimalism to maximise efficiency, and that includes design principles. As Freeman Dyson once wrote:

"A good scientist is a person with original ideas. A good engineer is a person who makes a design that works with as few original ideas as possible. There are no prima donnas in engineering." (Dyson, Disturbing the universe)

Natural, factual, reality will remain stubborn, it cannot be convinced or tricked, and the engineer must discover, uncover, and adapt to its inviolable rules. I suspect that the reason that a lot of seemingly smart people turn to, for example, to one of the many disciplines of computer engineering is that the machine does not lie. It does not revise facts according to its feelings. It does not negotiate, and nor can it be induced by appeals or admonishments. There is a brutal and logical honesty in error codes.

Of course, engineers do live with other people and they must negotiate and appeal etc with others. Engineers are human too, and they will have to deal with their own emotional calls. In the course of the story, Jiro falls in love with the artist Naoko Satomi who succumbs to tuberculosis, the time they spend together all too short, precious, beautiful, and rare. It is tragic that this genuine human relationship has to circumvent the officials who have raised their loyalty to abstract institutions to a level higher than the solidarity that one should show to visceral human beings. But that is just another elaboration of The Engineer's Curse, at least in this context of warfare.

In this regard, my own situation is less cursed and more blessed. When I think of the sort of assistance that I provide university researchers there is often something quite beneficial about it. I have been charmed by studies into the effect of light on the nocturnal songs rate of willie wagtails. I have recognised the importance of comparing and predicting population samples for marine conservation areas. Or for that matter signaling for SARS-CoV-2, or the transmission of Q Fever, and many other examples. It goes to show that systems, both physical and social, can be designed for the betterment of the world rather than its destruction. It didn't work out that way for Jiro Horikoshi, who just wanted to build beautiful planes. It is in memory of such tragic stories that we must direct the practical intent of our engineering efforts.