Reflections on “Crossing the Imaginary Line”

Early September, Environmental Science & Technology, a prestigious journal of the environmental engineering field, published an editorial titled “Crossing the Imaginary Line.” The editorial, written by Editor-in-Chief, Prof. David Sedlak, argues that environmental engineering academics should not cross the “imaginary line” that separates the “dispassionate researcher from the environmental activist” as it threatens the objectivity of research and discourages funding for basic research. Or in other words, by advocating for a certain environmental position, the researcher risks academic integrity, and retaliation from funding sources and political entities. The question of not only the researcher’s, but the engineering practitioner’s ethical responsibility to the public has long been debated within the engineering community. The appearance of this editorial in such a major publication has sparked much debate between environmental engineering researchers across the country.

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Despite my lack of experience and not being a researcher, I wish to express my thoughts regarding this topic from the perspective of a student still very much in the nascent stages of his career as a practicing engineer, as the ethical responsibility of engineering is often skimmed over in engineering coursework, and always deserves more attention. In addition to my own thoughts, I will include in my discussion the written responses from Prof. Marc Edwards and the Flint Water Study, Prof. Charles Haas, and Ph.D. student Maya Carrasquillo. These responses, along with the original editorial, offer an array of perspectives and help inform my own as I attempt to shape an opinion.

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Nerdcon: Stories: A Review

At first thought, many people would not consider themselves storytellers, or even interested in stories. But as NerdCon: Stories proved to me – we are surrounded by, and are made of, stories. Conceived by Hank Green of Vlogbrothers fame, NerdCon: Stories, in short, was meant “to be a celebration of the story, and the ways we tell stories, and the people who tell stories, which is really all of us” (Hank Green). Stories are powerful tools in which we communicate messages that cannot be told, only experienced.

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Any color, as long as it’s black

WEFTEC Exhibition Floor

WEFTEC Exhibition Floor

Last week, I had the opportunity to visit the Water Environment Federation’s Technical Exhibition and Conference 2015 (WEFTEC) down in Chicago for a day. As this was the first professional conference I have ever attended, I was looking forward to the experience and learning about the latest and greatest in Water Technology. WEFTEC is North America’s largest convention for water professionals, and I was immediately impressed (and overwhelmed) by the size of the exhibition floor (although I was later told that this year’s conference appeared smaller than last year’s). There were vendors from all over the world – China, South Korea, Germany, France, Norway. There were even areas where teams competed in events such rescuing a dummy worker in a confined space, or patching up a 6 inch pipe. To someone not interested in the water profession, this sight would be slightly comical, if not boring, but to a newly-minted engineer like myself, the sight was overwhelming.

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The world is a mess, and I just need to rule it

I find antagonists far more interesting than protagonists. Often the motivations of the hero are only briefly considered or developed, as these motivations are pretty two-dimensional and obvious. After all, who needs a reason to do something good? I’m more interested in the antagonists, the ones who dedicate their life to something the rest of the population opposes, the ones we love to hate, or hate to love, and are motivated by a complex interactions of thoughts, feelings and history.

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Should I stay or should I go?

When I first saw the teaser trailer for Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, I knew it was a movie that I wanted to see. It was a simple trailer in terms of special effects and action, but it spoke deeply and directly to the audience. When the first trailer came out, there was very little information on the plot, but I knew it had to do with space travel, and took place in a bleak future. I was especially struck with the line “The world doesn’t need any more engineers. We didn’t run out of planes and television sets. We ran out of food.” This line cemented my desire to watch the film – I was excited to see a science fiction film rooted in science fact, and I was also worried that this movie would give off the wrong impression of what engineers do to the public.

I won’t give away the plot of Interstellar for those who have not yet seen it (and if you haven’t yet, I highly encourage you to go). I just want to talk about my thoughts on the themes presented in the movie, mainly space exploration and engineering and science.

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Musings on the Current Education System – Maintaining Perspective and Inspiration

In education, as in life, there will always be challenges. There will be times that we question what we are doing, why we are doing it, and if any of it matters. And these times – while the scariest – are also the most valuable, the most important, for they reveal what truly matters to us. No one gets through challenges simply because we are told to do so, but because we choose to do so. I strongly believe that there are two major things we need to tackle challenges: perspective and inspiration – perspective to help us understand where we are, what we know and do not know, and why we do not know it; inspiration to understand where we want to go, and why we want to go there. The source of our perspective and inspiration comes from the realization that we are not alone, that where we are is defined by our relation to one another and to the greater universe, that our motivation comes from our family, friends, mentors, the beauty and mystery of life. It is humility and ambition combined.

When you find yourself questioning why you are doing problem sets, or attending classes, or going to work, remind yourself of your current perspective and inspiration. I say current, because these things can and will change throughout your life. What you do should grow your perspective and inspiration, and your perspective and inspiration should motivate what you do. Without perspective and inspiration, the work you do quickly loses meaning and the cycle is broken.

What troubles me is that the current systems that surround us do not address these two things, instead they construct additional challenges that make us lose our perspective and cloud our inspiration. Instead of being sources of inspiration and perspective, the education system tends to suck these things out of our lives. We are given goals to strive for without the reasons why, we are told to take tests because they will increase our academic standing, we are told we need to be the best out of a tiny percentage of a privileged population because…why? When that happens, we stray away from challenges, letting difficulty or fear of failing be our excuse not to do something. We lose the will to pursue challenges, to work hard.

At the moment, it is up to us to maintain our perspective and inspiration. Please don’t lose it.

Random thoughts on the Near-Future

I finally decided to sit down and watch Spoke Jonze’s newest movie, Her. In case you haven’t seen the trailer or heard about the movie, Her is basically a science-fiction romance, where a man falls in love with his Artificial Intelligent Operating System. What you would expect to be some sort of comedy is, at its heart, quite the emotionally intense drama. I really enjoyed Her for a variety of reasons (although I can’t help but wonder if the story would have the same effect if it was a woman who fell in love with a male A.I.).

While I described the movie as a science-fiction movie, the story certainly doesn’t have the typical sci-fi clichés that one sees all over Hollywood these days. The movie itself, while featuring an A.I. character, does revolve around future technology. What I mean is that in these blockbuster movies we see these days, the entire story actually revolves around the setting – post-apocalyptic earth, giant robot death machines, space ships, etc. Oftentimes, sci-fi movies attract attention because of the setting itself, not the characters (and for various reasons, but I won’t go into that now). The setting defines the movie. In Her, the setting: the near-future, is only a setting, and it’s the characters that we are interested in.

Furthermore, this setting isn’t in the far-flung future, but in the near future, a future where people still go to the beach, take walks in the park, carry a mobile device. It’s a future that we can connect too, because it seems extremely probably. This near-future setting enhances our connection to the story, because even though we know it’s sci-fi, we know it’s completely possible (and indeed, could be happening now). We easily connect to the setting, because it’s familiar, and it helps connect us to the characters themselves. Even though some things have changed, we’re all the same humans as before.

Now, I could write a whole post on how the movie considers the topic of what it means to be human, human-technology interactions and the Singularity. But I assume that there are dozens of articles out on the webs about these topics. All I want to say on the topic is that this movie provides a refreshing view of a “positive/optimistic” future and reminds us that even in the future, humans will still be relevant. I highly recommend it, and I think I am a growing fan of near-future stories (see: Robot and Frank).

What I wanted to talk about is our concepts of the near-future. After all, what we imagine today will most likely be reality tomorrow (which is why have such an interest in the sci-fi genre). I think it’s interesting (and perfectly valid) that most near-future conceptions feature a very electronically advanced society. Many things are automated, humans have perfected alternate reality and we have devices that can interact with each other. But as an Environmental Engineering student, I often see the term “technology” in a non-traditional light. For Environmental Engineers (and other professions that deal with the natural/built environment), technology not only includes electronics and computers, it also includes natural processes. We use soil, microbes, air, and water in much the same way as electrical engineers use wires, resistors and capacitors – as tools and parts to achieve a goal. So I got to thinking, what about a biologically advanced near-future, what would that look like? Yes, there are plenty of futures that feature genetically modified organisms or electrical implants, etc. But what about the near future, what about the artificial limbs and such? What about the renewable energy? How would we envision such a world?

You may be thinking that we already do envision such worlds, and that’s true. But I think when we think of the future, we immediately think about an electronic future, not necessarily a biological one. For instance, the concept of the Smart City is popular these days. A Smart City has a Smart Grid – a grid that has many sensors and is able to best allocate energy/resources to where they are needed the most at any time of day. A Smart City understand the needs of the population and can respond accordingly. But what about a Biological City? What about a city that is so in tune with its surrounding environment, that, it has learned to tap into natural processes for support? A city where our heating comes from renewable energy, or microbes, a city that produces light not from light bulbs, but from phosphorescence? It is certainly a harder future to imagine (and arguably a much scarier one), but a future worth thinking about.

But the two aren’t mutually exclusive. We certainly use biotech and electrical tech together all the time, and I think it is in this intersection, that we can unlock the most possibilities. I certainly encourage people to think about the world they want to see, and strive for it. But in this rapid advancement of technology, I think we should give a little more credibility to the impact that nature and biological technology (as it deals with humans, society and the environment) can have on our near-future. And in the midst of it all, we should remember that at the heart of the story are the characters, not the setting.