Sunday, August 28, 2011

Awesome Engineer. Asshat Engineer.

I have blogged about engineers and their lack of skepticism not so long ago and may have given the impression that engineers can’t help but rattle on and on about crap they don’t fully understand. So I am starting a new blog series called “Awesome Engineer. Asshat Engineer”. From now on I will present you with two engineers, one that has stuck to what they are good at and excelled, plus one that has drifted into babbling mindless bullshit. I wont be telling you which is which because it will be bloody obvious.

Today we have Nikola Tesla and Henry M. Morris.

Nikola Tesla

Nikola Tesla[1] (10 July 1856 – 7 January 1943) was an inventor, mechanical engineer, and electrical engineer. He was an important contributor to the birth of commercial electricity, and is best known for his many revolutionary developments in the field of electromagnetism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

OK. I know it’s unfair to compare Nikola Tesla to just about any other engineer since Nikola was just phenomenal. Plus any engineer who was best mates with the brilliantly skeptical Mark Twain is automatically right by me. What did Nikola contribute to society (amongst many other things)? He harnessed electricity. Yup. More specifically, the AC electricity that comes out of your wall today. Now such a fundamental requirement that it literally keeps people alive. Why is AC so much better than DC electricity? One word, Transformers.

Transformers only work on AC, which is one of the great advantages of AC. Transformers allow 240V to be stepped down to convenient levels for digital electronics (only a few volts) or for other low power applications (typically 12V). Transformers step the voltage up for transmission, as mentioned above, and down for safe distribution. Without transformers, the waste of electric power in distribution networks, already high, would be enormous. It is possible to convert voltages in DC, but more complicated than with AC. Further, such conversions are often inefficient and/or expensive. AC has the further advantage that it can be used on AC motors, which are usually preferable to DC motors for high power applications.

REF: Electric motors and generators,University of NSW, A resource page from Physclips, a multi-level multimedia introduction to physics.

There are thousands of web pages out there about Nikola Tesla. Read them. Especially about the “war of the currents” he engaged in, fighting on the AC side. One thing that also tends to be mentioned is the mental illness Tesla suffered from. He was obsessive compulsive, needing to ensure everything in his life was divisible by three. His obsession also extended to pigeons, where Nikola appeared to believe that certain pigeons were his friends. He would bring sick pigeons back to his hotel room to nurse. Pigeon deaths would devastate him.

[…]near the end of his life, Tesla showed signs of encroaching senility, claiming to be visited by a specific white pigeon daily. Several biographers note that Tesla viewed the death of the pigeon as a “final blow” to himself and his work.

Such examples are sadly just the beginning. Even so, his most controversial beliefs probably would not seem ignorant or uninformed by modern standards. Judge for yourself. I would like to think his connection with Mark Twain perhaps gives us our most important clue about the kind of person Tesla was. Throughout his illness he continued to contribute to the field of electromagnetism. An incredibly difficult subject area still dreaded by university students around the world today. The man was a genius.

Our next engineer is Henry M. Morris:

Morris grew up in Texas in the 1920s and 1930s. He graduated from Rice University with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering in 1939.[2] He married Mary Louise on January 24, 1940, and they later had six children. After his graduation in 1939, and through 1942, he was a hydraulic engineer working with the International Boundary and Water Commission. He returned to Rice, teaching civil engineering from 1942 until 1946.

I think the best way to introduce you to Henry’s work is to list some of the books he has written followed by brief comment supplied by a respected member of the scientific community (compiled with the help of Wikipedia).

Evolution & the Modern Christian (1967)

T.E. Fenton, Professor of Agronomy at Iowa State University, wrote “scientific value of the book is nil; the author selectively chooses the areas of science that he accepts and rejects other areas of accepted science”.

REF: T.E. Fenton, “Evolution & the Modern Christian Review” in Reviews of Creationist Books ed Liz Rank Hughes, National Center for Science Education

The Remarkable Birth of Planet Earth (1972)

David Vogel, Professor of Biology at Creighton University, reviewed the book explaining “his theology is shallow; his exegesis is maddening; his science is wrong; and he tops it off by offending millions of Bible-believing Christians who also accept evolution”

REF:David Vogel, “The Remarkable Birth of Planet Earth Review” in Reviews of Creationist Books ed Liz Rank Hughes, National Center for Science Education, 1992. page 108 ISBN 0939873524

Scientific Creationism (1974 and 1984)

Thomas Wheeler, Professor of biochemistry at University of Louisville, reviewed the second edition and concluded, “Scientific Creationism cannot be recommended for use in public school classes, or indeed anyone interested in learning science”.[12] Wheeler cited Morris misunderstanding of science, appeals to religious prejudice, misrepresentation of scientific knowledge, omission of opposing science, double standards in evidence, “absurd conclusions,” inappropriate and misidentified sources, attacks on scientists, using discredited arguments, and “silly calculations”.

REF:Thomas Wheeler, “Scientific Creationism Review” in Reviews of Creationist Books ed Liz Rank Hughes, National Center for Science Education, 1992. page 97-100 ISBN 0939873524

The Long War Against God: The History and Impact of the Creation/Evolution Conflict (1989)

Morris was criticized by Randy Moore, of University of Minnesota, for writing in the book that “evolutionism” is satanic and responsible for racism, abortion, and a decline in morality.

REF:^ “Racism and the Public’s Perception of Evolution”. National Center for Science Education. 1999. Retrieved 2007-01-19.

It appears that despite being a relatively well educated civil engineer he was not able to correctly judge his personal level of expertise in other subject areas. Henry appeared to be under the false impression that he knew quite a bit about geology, biology and cosmology. Despite being born well after Nikola Tesla in a modern age Tesla practically created, Henry was clearly driven by his religion and not science. Its as if Henry and Nikola were born the wrong way around in time. If only Dr Who really existed.

I am glad to see however, that the scientific community has criticized Henry when it was deserved. Having said that I would love to know what kind of engineer Henry actually was. Does being a brilliant engineer like Tesla reduce the likelihood that a person would write a book like Scientific Creationism.

I wonder.



Feasibility is an engineering based blog designed to reach other STEM people. Non-STEM people are also welcome! I try to give good advice and well-reasoned opinions but please don’t hesitate to disagree with me. This blog exists because I realised that I live in a metaphorical bubble and that simply wont do. Nup.


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