Monday, March 28, 2011

U. S. Engineers: Not Without Honor Except In Their Own Country

One of the better-known sayings of Jesus is that a prophet is not without honor except in his own country. Another way of saying the same thing is the adage that an expert is just an ordinary guy who happens to be from out of town. The profession of engineering in the U. S. is not what public-relations firms would call “high-profile.” And when you hear statistics cited that China graduates 600,000 engineers every year compared to less than 100,000 in the U. S., you could be excused for thinking that the profession of engineering in the U. S. is headed the way of the Blockbuster video chain, which recently declared bankruptcy. But an interesting report a few years ago by a Duke University research group on global engineering and entrepreneurship shows these trends in a different light, and gives us at least some ideas about what to do.

Entitled “Where The Engineers Are,” the report says that when people take engineering graduation statistics from India and especially China at face value, they are unwittingly comparing apples and oranges. For one thing, the offshore statistics routinely count two- and three-year degrees the same as four-year bachelors’ degrees, which is not done in U. S. compilations. The numbers from China are not gathered in a uniform way and show some irregularities owing to a tremendous push on behalf of the government there to increase the number of engineering graduates. In India, there is no single agency charged with the responsibility of gathering engineering statistics of this type, so computer-science degrees are often mixed in with the engineering degrees, and there are some programs there which do not have an exact equivalent in the U. S. When the authors (who traveled to China and India as part of their research) asked managers of companies where they can get engineers comparable in background and quality to the “standard” product of U. S. engineering schools, the managers typically named only a few universities in their respective countries, out of the hundreds of institutes that are producing people who are counted as engineering graduates. So the picture that emerged was a two-tiered kind of affair: a few select universities graduating a relatively small number of engineers with the backgrounds typical of U. S. four-year schools, and a much larger and varied group of organizations producing the hundreds of thousands of people cited in the statistics, many of whom would not be classified as engineers in the U. S.

Does that mean there’s nothing to do and we can all go back to our knitting, so to speak? Not necessarily. An important aspect of any well-functioning profession is a sense of honor on behalf of its members: the notion that one belongs to a select group which is admired and looked up to by the general public, and whose reputation and integrity is therefore worth preserving by individual effort. Think of the recruiting ads put out by the U. S. Marine Corps, who are always looking for “a few good men.” While engineers rank fairly high in polls that ask what the most trusted professions are, pharmacists rank even higher. I don’t watch TV that much, but I don’t recall hearing about any TV shows starring a charismatic, handsome pharmacist. But lawyers, doctors, and even politicians and mobsters get that kind of exposure.

The kinds of people a culture honors says a lot about its desires and ambitions. In China, according to the Duke researchers, anyone who succeeds in publishing a research paper in an international journal is treated like a hero. But in the words of Rodney Daingerfield, it is only a slight exaggeration to say that in the U. S., engineers “don’t get no respect.”

This may be one reason why there is such a dearth of native U. S. students who pursue advanced degrees in engineering and the sciences. The result is that a majority of graduate students in these disciplines are from other countries, and while many of them stay here and contribute in positive ways that are out of proportion to their percentage of the population, an increasing number return to their native countries, where they can find highly prestigious management and technical positions.

What can be done, not only to better the situation of the engineering profession in this country, but to contribute to the global situation in a positive way? There are two basic approaches, which cast in economic terms are (1) restricting supply and (2) increasing demand. Some call for restrictive immigration policies that would make it harder for foreign citizens to either get advanced degrees in the U. S. or to stay here once they did. I favor the second approach, which is to make it easier for us to keep good foreign students and to attract more good students of any origin into programs that don’t require such severe financial sacrifices as present graduate programs do now.

One idea I haven’t seen much support for lately is the notion of changing the way we fund research in this country. Most of the research funds go to the researchers themselves, who then hire students on the open market at reduced rates compared to what the students could earn in industrial employment. What if we took a big chunk of money away from those guys (which includes me, by the way) and gave it to the best students instead, regardless of citizenship? You’d have to have some kind of competitive examination or other to find them, but once they got in, you could have favorable visas fast-tracked to the foreign students, and everybody who got in would get virtually a free ride financially to a graduate degree, as far as they wanted to pursue it. You’d need some time limits to prevent people from turning into perpetual graduate students, but that wouldn’t be hard. It would change the nature of the research business considerably, but schools and researchers would be competing for students with these new fellowships, rather than competing directly among each other for funding.

That’s the student end; how about the researcher and engineer end? There are awards for excellence in engineering and science, but they are definitely low-profile and scarcely cause a blip in the public consciousness or the media. I’m not in show business, but it sure seems like you could jazz up these kinds of awards with a little Academy-Award style of publicity. That goes against the grain of most engineers I know, but in a world of hyped media, the person who speaks quietly in a normal tone of voice is simply not heard.

Well, I’ve gone on too long with some half-baked ideas on how to make engineering a more prestigious activity in the U. S. In the long run, though, it will be determined by those who take our place, the next generation, and I just hope that they look upon our profession with more respect than it has received recently.

Sources: The Duke University report “Where The Engineers Are” can be downloaded at and was published in the Spring 2007 issue of Issues in Science and Technology. I obtained the information on a Gallup poll of most trusted professions from a news report from 2009 at

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Prophet of the Nuclear Apocalypse: Keith Snow on the Japanese Nuclear Disaster

Last week when I commented on the nuclear disaster that followed the tsunami and earthquake in Japan on Mar. 11, my estimate of the eventual outcome was guardedly optimistic. A week and several explosions and fires later, no one has been able to get close enough to the damaged reactors to make a thorough assessment of the situation, and radiation is starting to show up in water and the food chain in Japan, although initially at low levels. And after reading the grim prophetic words of Keith Snow, I have a different viewpoint altogether to consider.

Mr. Snow is an independent investigative journalist whose courageous and iconoclastic efforts to reveal hidden agendas, systemic lies, and outrageous wrongs have won him numerous awards. He was also a student of mine many years ago at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and spent several years as an engineer in the military-industrial complex before experiencing a change of heart. He has turned his considerable technical abilities and understanding to writing accurate, informed reports on things that the usual media outlets seldom cover, at least in the way Mr. Snow covers them.

In the Old Testament of the Bible, every now and then God would send a prophet to his people the Jews. The prophet’s job was not a pleasant one. If the people had been behaving well, they wouldn’t have needed a prophet to draw their attention to their misdeeds. As a usual thing, the prophet was ignored at best, and mocked, scorned, jailed, or killed at worst. Because the prophet’s message threatened the status quo and the vested interests of the powerful, he rarely found a large audience. But the sign of a true prophet was truth: telling it like it was, and sometimes foretelling events that later came to pass.

Keith Snow is a modern-day prophet. He’s aware of this: his blog on the Japanese nuclear disaster at begins with a quotation from the New Testament about false prophets. He doesn’t quite come out and say he’s the real McCoy, but the implication is clear. As with other reporting he’s done, he sticks to one or two consistent themes.

One theme is the way that corporate interests move heaven and earth to protect themselves, through exerting influence on commercial media by advertising, on politicians through donations and lobbying, and by exploiting powerless populations by neglecting basic safety and health issues that might cost too much. Mr. Snow has a deeply critical view of commercial (i. e. corporation-controlled) media, which nowadays includes almost everything except independent bloggers such as himself. He describes in his current blog how the major media outlets such as the New York Times have skewed their coverage of the nuclear disaster in Japan to favor corporate interests such as those of General Electric, which is responsible for the reactor designs that failed during the earthquake. He shows how corporate-friendly experts have downplayed the danger of radioactive isotope releases from the damaged plants, and cites hard facts straight from scientific tables to show that materials like cesium-137 and strontium-90 are not items that you want showing up in your dinner salad—or anywhere else nearby, not for many, many years. He harshly (and correctly, I believe) rakes the plant designs over the coals for a number of basic flaws that have been at least partially corrected in some later designs—but the Japanese electric utilities wanted to recover their substantial investments in the older technology, at least up to last week when the whole complex was apparently written off in efforts to stop the crisis. Just for the sake of balance, I would urge anyone who read my post last week on the nuclear crisis in Japan to read Mr. Snow’s much more detailed and technically deep analysis of the situation.

Mr. Snow and I have some philosophical differences, but that does not keep me from recognizing the importance of paying attention to voices like his. I will admit that sometimes, after reading one of his more vitriolic analyses of a current commercial technology such as nuclear power, the use of fossil fuels, or the Wild-West-style mining of a technologically important mineral such as coltan, I want to sit him down and ask him, “Okay, these terrible consequences have resulted from the corporation-dominated market operating internationally to produce and satisfy technological needs and wants of millions or billions of people. If you were king for a year, or a decade, how would you do things differently? Would you take the Distributist line and prohibit the existence of any corporation larger than a certain size? And how pray tell would you enforce such a law?” It is a conversation I have never had with him, but I keep looking for hints in his writings of how it would proceed. I don’t see many.

As a teacher in an electrical engineering program, I believe that acquiring technical knowledge for the purposes of commercial development of engineered products and services is a net societal good. Yes, it can cause trouble. Yes, people can be killed, deprived of liberty, impoverished, or otherwise harmed by wrongly made technology. But I still believe the technological enterprise is worth pursuing, although perhaps with a much greater awareness of its long-term effects than has been customary in the past.

This may sound strange, but a culture can’t stop and think too much about what it’s doing, or else it risks the chance of general paralysis. The heart must be involved as well as the head. This is not a criticism of Mr. Snow—his journalism clearly involves his heart as well as his head, probably more than most journalism does. What I am trying to say is, we need to hear words like Mr. Snow’s, not only after a disaster that happens, but before other disasters in order that they may not happen. The proper response is not to cease building engineered things altogether, but to build them more responsibly and wiser. And the working out of what that means can take a lifetime.

It is the nature of a prophet’s words that one cannot judge their correctness at the time they are spoken. Some of the things Mr. Snow speaks of in his nuclear disaster blog may not come to pass for years, or decades, or centuries. Only generations in the far future will be able to make a truly informed judgment on the rightness of his words. To those of us in the present, Mr. Snow’s words pose a challenge: do you believe him? And if so, to what degree? And that, dear reader, is a decision that you must make for yourself.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Nuclear Power Meltdown in Japan?

As I write this on Sunday evening (U. S. Central Daylight Time), it is Monday morning in Japan, and nuclear engineers continue to struggle with several damaged nuclear power plants in the northern part of Japan. They were damaged in last Friday’s massive magnitude-8.9 earthquake and tsunami. Our prayers and thoughts are with the people of Japan, who are dealing with the worst catastrophe to hit their islands since World War II. It is likely that thousands have died, and about half a million people have been displaced from their homes. Many months will pass before life in Japan returns to something near normal. The question I would like to ask is: will “normal” life in Japan include nuclear power?

To my knowledge, no nuclear plant in the history of the world has ever been subjected to an 8.9-magnitude earthquake before now. Prior to last week’s temblor, Japan was well known for designing nuclear reactors with extremely high standards for safety in the face of all kinds of malfunctions and problems, including earthquakes. The fact that Japan uses nuclear power at all is somewhat impressive, given the fact that it is the only country where people were killed by nuclear weapons in war (Hiroshima and Nagasaki). Conscious of the technology’s history, Japanese nuclear engineers have probably devised the safest possible systems consistent with making a reasonable profit and making a viable contribution to their country’s power industry. But every design has intentional limits, and informed sources say that the plants were not designed to withstand an earthquake the size of the one that hit last Friday.

Despite the magnitude of the shock, it appears that the containment vessels surrounding the radioactive cores have done their job so far. The main problems have been that at several plants, notably the Fukushima No. 1 unit, both the main and the auxiliary electric power failed. Nuclear reactors work by producing huge amounts of heat that is carried away ultimately to make steam that runs electric generators. In pressurized-water reactors (evidently the type in question), the heat is transported by rapidly flowing pressurized water. Any interruption in this flow traps heat in the radioactive core, sending its temperature soaring to the point that the zirconium-encased uranium fuel rods can crack and release radioactive byproducts. The absolute worst-case scenario is not a nuclear-bomb-type of explosion, but a so-called “meltdown” in which the fuel rods melt through the floor of the containment vessel into the ground. The resulting release of radioactive material is a serious problem.

So far, this has not apparently happened. However, short of that ultimate disaster, some other disturbing things can and did occur. Hot zirconium oxidizes, and when it gets in contact with water, a chemical (not nuclear) reaction releases hydrogen gas, which can build up to a concentration that causes a plain old chemical explosion. This has happened in at least one plant, blowing off some of the outer structure of the plant and releasing some radioactive gas. But the amounts are small and nothing like what happened at Chernobyl, for example.

In 1986, an accident at the graphite-moderated nuclear plant in Chernobyl (in the present country of Ukraine) set fire to the graphite and spread deadly amounts of radiation for many miles. By almost any measure, the Chernobyl plant was badly designed, and nothing like the radioactive fire that happened there could occur at the Japanese plants.

Nevertheless, things are still dicey. Even if the nuclear reaction is shut down by emergency flooding or moderator-rod insertion, you still have a tremendous amount of heat to deal with, and the failure of the cooling-water pumps means that the reactors have already overheated and sustained a certain amount of damage. And of course, most of the instrumentation that engineers would normally use to figure out what is going on inside the plants has also gone flooey. Plus, nobody wants to get near the things with radioactive fuel sloshing around. Possibly it is a job for some radiation-hardened robots. If there are any such things, you can bet they have them in Japan and they’re trying to use them now.

A late report mentions that engineers working with at least one plant have thrown in the towel, and are pumping seawater mixed with boron into one reactor vessel. This is a last-ditch emergency measure that will cool the reactor core fast, but will also corrode it to the point of destruction. It’s likely that the reactor was beyond salvaging anyway, but this action seals its fate. At this point, this is an appropriate action that puts public safety ahead of the power company’s investment.

The future of Japan’s nuclear industry may depend on how well the damaged plants are handled, and also how well the news of any releases of radioactivity is dealt with. If the reactor failures were the only problem, it would be a huge crisis, but the Japanese public currently has other things on its mind besides a little radioactive gas floating around amid the devastation of the earthquake and tsunami.

It’s hard to say, but it looks like the Japanese nuclear engineers will handle this situation with courage and good judgment. The reactors will cool, eventually someone will get inside to assess the damage, and some of the power plants will have to be written off. My guess is that Japan will decide to keep using nuclear power, but may increase even further the already rigorous standards for future plant construction, learning from whatever lessons this tragedy has taught us.

Sources: I relied on news reports from CNN at and the Los Angeles Times at,0,3403230.story.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Daniel Bell, the Post-Industrial Society, and Engineering

Daniel Bell was a Harvard sociologist who died at the age of 91 last January. He is perhaps best known for inventing the phrase “post-industrial society” in the 1970s to describe a transition that was only beginning to take place in the United States back then. I’d like to speculate a little on the contributions of engineers to that transition, and whether post-industrial society is an unequivocally good thing.

Perhaps the first modern industrial society came into being in Great Britain in the late 1800s, where the Scientific Revolution and Industrial Revolutions combined with a commerce-friendly government and culture to lead to tremendous growth of mass manufacturing and exchange of mass-produced goods. Transportation and communications technologies were an essential part of this transition, because the mere making of 100,000 widgets is a pretty pointless endeavor if you can’t agree to sell them fast (e. g. the use of telegrams and the telephone by businesses) and ship them to customers nearly as fast (e. g. on railroads and steamships). The U. S. was an even more fertile ground for industrialization than England in some ways, and once World War II temporarily flattened nearly every other country’s industrial base, the U. S. entered what is increasingly looking in retrospect like a unique Golden Age of industrialization.

Industrialized societies are physical-thing-based: the making and using of things is what they are all about. The things can be big (modern buildings, cities) or small (computers, microchips) but they are physical objects that are assembled, bought, sold, shipped, and owned. Bell’s insight was to see that a different kind of society was in the cards: one in which things, although necessary to the functioning of the new kind of society, were not the main event. What web developers like to call “content,”—what Bell described in terms of data, information, and knowledge—was to be the main product of post-industrial society. This transition from industrial to post-industrial was to have huge implications for the makeup of society as a whole, and for the kinds of workers needed as well.

By many criteria, Bell got it right. Perhaps the most obvious measure of the transition is the movement from manufacturing to service employment. The category of services, which counts everything from janitors to judges, has always been a larger component than manufacturing once most people moved off the farm, but in 1970 there were only about two service workers for every manufacturing worker. By 2005, the proportion was five service workers for every manufacturing employee.

Another way that Bell’s idea was confirmed is in the types of business that attract attention and young workers. In 1970, quite possibly the best a high-school graduate could do was to find a factory job that demanded semi-skilled manual labor. The wages and benefits (often guaranteed by a union contract) were enough to start a family on, and job security was good. In 2011, good luck finding such a job. The unemployment rate among native-born U. S. citizens aged 18-29 with only a high-school diploma is about 20% as of last fall. And those who are employed get jobs that barely can make ends meet for a single person. As for raising a family or getting married (increasingly in that order), it is a dubious proposition at best.

What have engineers got to do with all this? Engineering is both an industrial and a post-industrial job category. Engineers were needed to design the cornucopia of material goods that built the industrial economies of the world, and engineers likewise devised the computer networks, software, and auxiliary tools and concepts necessary for the modern film, video game, and financial trading industries—the kinds of activities that make up a post-industrial economy. As I have noted elsewhere, engineers tend to have a narrow focus on the technical task to be done, to the neglect of its wider implications for society as a whole. Not only engineers, but most people discussing modern economies tend to operate with some unspoken assumptions I would like to at least question.

To put it a little too broadly, what is life for? The unspoken answer to this question that usually is assumed by all parties is, “To produce and consume—especially consume.” In a way, the transition from industrial to post-industrial hasn’t questioned that assumption. Instead of buying new, improved toasters and refrigerators and cars, we’re now buying new and improved DVDs, computer games, and versions of Microsoft Excel. Both kinds of economies demand that people earn enough money to consume the products made—and that’s where a problem is showing up.

Every cohort of young people is made up of some who will make brilliant lawyers, doctors, scientists, or engineers—and a whole lot more who won’t. But if we increasingly move toward an economy in which the only people who can earn a decent living need advanced degrees and the brainpower required to obtain those degrees, we will end up with a situation more typical of developing countries: a small, pampered, wealthy elite living in walled compounds to keep out the impoverished, ill-fed and ill-clad masses who live from hand to mouth. This is frankly the way most societies were organized over the centuries, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best way. To have a solid, prosperous middle class, one needs solid middle-class jobs for them—jobs within the reach of most people with average smarts. But that’s not what’s happening.

We are trying to compensate for the problem by making more and more people go to college for longer and longer periods. This is good in some ways, but it runs against biology in several respects, notably the fact that we are set up (by evolution or God, depending on your point of view) to marry and have children around the age of 20 at the latest. The Amish solve this problem by amputating education at the eighth grade. The young people who choose to stay Amish (and there is usually a time when they are given a choice) become farmers or craftsmen, marry and have children at 18 or 20, and live quiet, unremarkable, pre-industrial lives, most of them. But if everybody quit what they’re doing now and tried to be Amish, we’d run out of farmland in about two seconds.

I said I’d raise a question. I didn’t say I knew the answer. Responses to this blog, as always, are more than welcome.

Sources: I relied on the Wikipedia article on Daniel Bell, and used information from the websites and for employment statistics.