Naming Convention 03 – A Rebuttal

David Evans did not agree with the points made here and here before. You remember that he is the Membership Director of the British Computer society [BCS] and has commented in the last two posts. This time he responds:

As I inferred previously, it is very important to me that engineers and engineering principles are at home in BCS. They are a critical component (but not the only component) of what this field actually is.

He insists that The Lad is in error.

Computing is sometimes pretty abstract, but not as disconnected from the physical as you suggest. Code is at the end of the day not abstract mathematics, but instructions that will be transduced into physical effects in both light and matter. By definition, code designed to be run will have a physical impact. It can also be argued as the application of computer science, and as such gets back to the core of engineering as the application of science (though predicated of course on computer science being an accepted term). Through those arguments, and potentially others, software engineering is full-blooded engineering, and benefits from the application of the well-developed fundamental principles of engineering common across all fields.

 The Lad notes that his definition of engineering is not the ‘application of science’ but the ‘manipulation of forces’ [for the benefit of human kind]. Thus it is in the earliest days of the Athenian Navy trireme and Roman aqueducts, engineering existed before they had the benefit of science as we currently know it.

I’d also challenge whether the entire body of what you’re currently calling engineers would be comfortable with the suggestion that they are so disconnected from organisations and people. I think both from a design and implementation perspective, people (their behaviours, the impact on them) are often very important to engineers and engineering projects.

This is a valid point that he had not made plain. The truth is that any engineering project has to take proper account of the ‘human environment’. Otherwise it will be deemed, correctly, a failure.

In summary though, The Lad still defines the engineering product as something you can touch. If you cannot then – it is mathematics, or science or logic or philosophy. Or perhaps something else entirely…

… Something else entirely.

David Evans also pointed to a piece by Jeannette M. Wing, President’s Professor of Computer Science, Computer Science Department, Carnegie Mellon University, USA. The Lad will go along with her. As David said “It is essentially an argument for computing as its own discipline rather than a slave to engineering or mathematics.”

A single small quote from Professor Wing’s piece that gives a flavour without The Lad doing her too much injustice is that she says computational thinking has many characteristics, but one is:

[It] Complements and combines mathematical and engineering thinking. Computer science inherently draws on mathematical thinking, given that, like all sciences, its formal foundations rest on mathematics. Computer science inherently draws on engineering thinking, given that we build systems that interact with the real world. The constraints of the underlying computing device force computer scientists to think computationally, not just mathematically. Being free to build virtual worlds enables us to engineer systems beyond the physical world.

Gathering up some loose ends

Or should it be some loose nuts and bolts? The mention of Meccano in the previous post in the picture of Maurice Wilkes and the differential analyser brought The Lad up short for a moment

Meccano and proto-engineers go together in the world view of the generation of The Lad’s father. In this ancient view, it was a pre-requisite that all engineers originally wore the short trousers and built models in Meccano of such unlikely complexity as the Forth Bridge or a Steam Shovel see below and a previous post.

Meccano cover
This work has been released into the public domain by its author, Steve Johnson. This applies worldwide.


Gulp! Do such echoes of Wilkes and a previous generation persuade The Lad that the origins of IT involved engineering, albeit of the model genus? Would he have to alter his stance on the variable relationship between IT and engineering?

Scratches head.

Ah, yes. We know what to say… No change in the IT stance – because Wilkes’s machine was analogue. Moving quickly on.

The Name of Engineering on TV

There was a BBC2 “Engineering Giants programme on Sunday 15 July 2012. It was the first of a new series exploring how large machines work. The programme watches, in the words of the Sunday Times, a 14 year-old Boeing 747 jumbo jet being taken apart and re-assembled. In engineering reality, it really means that it was stripped down, examined, repaired as necessary and re-assembled.

It was a pretty good programme considering the dearth until recently of programmes addressing any sort of engineering. Let there be more such.

Pity they called everyone in shot ‘engineers’ when all [except two presenters] were technicians. Yes, all were of the engineering profession. There are many in the profession but not all are engineers. The aircraft designers and those who specify the test standards [none of whom appeared] are the engineers.

Though both are members of the ‘medical profession’ no one refers to nurses as doctors or vice versa. Solicitors and barristers are distinct members of the legal profession.

So to are, in the engineering profession, engineers, technicians and mechanics amongst others. They are not to be confounded.

Oh Lord! I’m tiring! Let us leave that battle to another day.

The Lad suspects that this thread is running out of steam for the moment or, at least, running the risk of trespassing on the goodwill of our reader. She needs a return to a post on ‘engineering-engineering’ and away from ‘name-engineering’. We can come back to it when there is something more to add.

Let The Lad move on for the moment to the next post on the swimmer.

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