What it means to be an engineer?
2014-03-26 | Text: Interview with Yury Gromyko | Photo ©: shutterstock.com | 577

Everyone is familiar with the word “engineer”. But did anyone think, while pronouncing this word, what does it mean? Most people think that an engineer is a specialist in the technical field, working on new technological appliances or modernizing existing ones. At least, this is the definition one would find in contemporary dictionaries and encyclopedias. But is it as simple as that, and what really makes someone an engineer? Is it the activity, the way of thinking or, maybe, it is just the diploma that they get after the graduation? The questions related to the engineer mode of thinking were discussed with Yury Gromyko, methodologist, the director of Shiffers Institute of Advanced Studies.


– Mr. Gromyko, could you tell us what underlies the concept of an engineer – is it a graduate of Technical Institute, the job, or a person characterized by a certain mode of thinking?


In this context I would talk about engineering as a way of life, connected with the capability to unite breakthroughs, new knowledge about new principles and effects of natural materials, socio-natural and social systems with constructing, project-oriented strategies for changing the world. It is about the ability to create a new construction and, then to make it real. An engineer is not an inventor, though inventing new types of actions is an element of engineering. Engineering involves both knowledge and new project realization, constructing types of actions.


– Does an engineer’s thinking influence their life not connected with work? In other words, is an engineer still an engineer outside work?


Yes. Since engineering is a way of life, it also influences living habits, the constructive ways of changing life, starting from any everyday problems to the most difficult, unsolved issues: engineering of immortality and engineering of history.


– This means that educating an engineer – it is not just giving them some technical knowledge, but rather working to ensure a special type of thinking? What particular aspects of educating the specialists with such a mode of thinking you could name?


Engineering mode of thinking is a multidiscipline in the modern world; it cannot be narrow-minded and just technocratic. Multidisciplinary means being capable of working in a team of various specialists and the capability of finding the constructive way out of previously unsolved problems. I would also draw your attention to the ideas formulated in Olin College, that are, according to American innovations guru Thomas Koulopoulos, breakthroughs even comparing them to MIT. These ideas are also close to ones realized in my sister’s project – Chief designer’s school. Firstly, it is about fundamental scientific education, through which one can understand the physical principles of processes. Secondly, economical education which is needed in order to assess the economic feasibility of the new constructions and, finally, humanitarian education in order to understand the mode of thinking of the users of elaborated constructions, in order to understand their way of thinking. Engineering implies finding constructive solutions that ensure connection between the different types of knowledge and a construction that can be remodeled.


– Engineers in the 19th, 20th, 21st century – is there any difference?


The difference lies in the basic elements, objects of transformation. The 19th century – this is the period of engineering of machines and mechanisms, the 20th century – engineering of social organizations and devices, the 21st century – engineering of living systems, involving the reduction to the mechanisms for turning into self-sufficient organisms. 

– In the Soviet Union there was such position as chief designer, though it was not the case in any other country. Why?


In this respect, I would like to tell the story which I know from my teacher Pobisk Kuznetsov. He claimed that during the Soviet period with all its Gulags (abbr. for Chief Administration of Corrective Labour Camps) and harsh democracy the only free people (both organizationally and intellectually) were chief designers. It can be explained by the fact that they were able to demonstrate to the country’s top leadership the issues that must be solved or the country will not survive without them. And after that they showed that they were the only ones who are capable of solving that problem. It was checked by special services. And then the major possibility comes: as it is a personal contract with the authorities, everything that is done by general constructors is determined by them – no mediators, no party representatives etc. At the same time, the results of their activities should be clear; they will be analyzed so not to have leaks (esp. abroad). Therefore, the general designer was able to organize a zone of absolute freedom using his talent, intellect and ability to reach a complex goal.

The personal life of Pobisk was not that easy. He got his education in a Gulag. At the same time he was thinking of that as a great value. “I had a polidisciplinary education – he said, – that no one in the world has. All the people in the barracks were academicians, who knew the classical books by heart. I was falling asleep and listening to debates on who was right in his version of life origin: was it Vernadsky, Tompson or Williams. And I was getting up and hearing the long citations from Kepler or Newton. The atmosphere was overwhelmed with that”. A very important and admonishing moment, according to his words, came when Lavrentiy Beria came to monitor the works that were being done in a barrack, where Pobisk lived. Lavrentiy Beria liked so far the results of the scientific research, and he even said: “Good job!” Then one academician asked him a question, and they had the following conversation:

– Mr. Beria, who are we?

– What does that mean? You are scientists, salt of the earth.

– Mr. Beria, but why then we are sitting in labor camps, not somewhere else?

– You know, you do not unite to work on common tasks together in Moscow. When we tried to do it, everyone was swearing and telling lies and tales about others, telling about others’ alcohol abuse etc. And look how intensively you are working here together, friendly to each other and getting such wonderful results”.

Pobisk used to tell us that such barracks existed long ago, even during the Tsarist period. Peter the Great had them in the Urals, Catherine the Great also used them to unite smart people, to make them invent something new. In this respect, it is obvious that the life of a true intellectual is hard under any authority. Therefore, the chief designer is a very interesting person, who is able to connect his personal destiny, his personal rights with the higher authorities.

There is one more interesting point I would like to mention here. In the Soviet Union the systems that surrounded the chief designers were very rational and efficient. Though at the same time in the USSR there were so many different systems and institutions of a demonstrative kind. But this also is a characteristic trait of some other countries. Once an American, Thomas Popkovitz, came to Russia. He was working in the sphere of educational policy and was inspecting the schools. He got to know that among 10 American schools there are usually around 7 that are “assimilative”. When he was asked “what is assimilative?”, we got the answer: “This is an interesting type of schools where teachers pretend to teach, and pupils pretend to study. Nothing else happens there”. It is very important to have such institutions within society, where there is no real activity but the system has all the typical attributes of a social institution. It happens because to make a real change you need to be serious: eager to change yourself, to make compromises with authorities, to study. There are few people of that kind.


– Which project did Pobisk do that enabled him to be so free?


He was elaborating the system of target management “Sputnik-Skalar” which was a system to control the Soviet mega-projects. For instance, that was the system for managing all the space programs, the elaboration and launching of the Buran space shuttle. This system enabled coordination of the activity of millions of specialists and hundreds of enterprises working for the project.

What is more, Pobisk Kuznetsov was the first in the USSR to analyze the accessible date from the UN on increasing amounts of money supply and physical goods and saw the disproportion. Thus, he came to the conclusion that the G7 countries are printing money without control. Therefore, he was among the first scientists (together with LaRouche) to predict the crisis which we are currently experiencing.

At the same time he probably was the only person who understood the frontier in the whole range of natural sciences, conceptualizing them through certain philosophical views. He was sure that the most distinguished research lies in the sphere of the origin of life. This subject, to his mind, should become the central topic of all the scientific breakthroughs forming scientific research in the 21st century.

He was certainly interested in the issues of the future of mankind. He had a great empathy towards the Eric Kraft’s idea about Mars colonization – not just to explore it, but to create an atmosphere and reproduce all the living systems there. Taking into account that one day the sun will die, Pobisk saw the main mission of humanity as to enrich its power gradually to be able finally to get a new sun, thus reproducing the natural system that we currently have. Then, he was coming to the idea that every thinking person should seriously decide – how much time he needs to spend becoming capable of taking care of himself and his family, and how much time he has for creativity, which is connected with solving the global planetary problems. In this respect the idea of space reclamation was not an example of wishful thinking. It was closely interrelated with the question of managing your lifetime.

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