What would an engineer need to know about ethics? (‘Why I may appear to have been writing less of late,’ Part Three of Three)

Dad always thought those studying the sciences should be taught more of the history, the philosophy, and especially the ethical dilemmas which had been faced by their predecessors.

Those in charge of the university’s Electrical Engineering (and Computer Science!) Department scoffed. Their slates were full helping these kids schedule all the “How to fit Tab A into Slot B” coursework required for a degree. If the kids wanted to waste a semester taking history, that’s why there was a History Department. If they had time to dabble in Philosophy, that’s why there was a Philosophy Department. Ethics? Go visit the chaplain.

Even dad’s tendency to use his sabbaticals in Britain and Europe (ask the Brits if they think they’re part of Europe), visiting the sites of famous scientific or engineering triumphs and disasters (who the heck visits Germany to see the Fossa Carolina?), taking pictures and collecting maps and drawings and anecdotes and writing up what he found about the quirky historical figures who made it all happen, was considered suspicious enough that they eventually put a stop to it. (How was that going to help anyone build a better ray gun, after all?) None of that material was ever published. The notebooks and file folders still clog the quiet house.

But now that I’m sorting through a portion of his library, I find it an intriguing compendium of books on these very topics -– what science is, the philosophy of science, the history and ethics of science. I just came across a 1984 book by Werner Heisenberg’s widow, called “Inner Exile.” Heisenberg won the 1932 Nobel Prize for Quantum Mechanics, a prize he later admitted he should have shared with Max Born and Pascual Jordan. The book seeks to explain his decision to stay in Germany during the war when so many other notable physicists fled to the West, leading to charges Heisenberg had stayed to work on “Hitler’s atomic bomb.”

We could have donated this collection to the History and Ethics of Science program at the engineering school at UConn in Storrs, I suppose . . . except that there isn’t any.

So if you ever wonder why we’ve got so many scientists and engineers busily killing off our honey bees with their genetically engineered crops “that can do no harm,” or loading up your dairy products with Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone, or working on amazing new “crowd control” devices for our burgeoning police state, with never a qualm or query about the philosophical or ethical implications of such work because they’ve never really been taught to consider anything but how to insert Tab A into Slot B, don’t blame dad. He tried.

But the fact that dad left us in January isn’t why I may appear to have been writing less, of late.

After burying dad at the Veterans Cemetery in snowbound Connecticut, Mom, who’s 88, went home and parked her car at the bottom of the driveway and got out to check the mail. The ground was covered with sheer black ice; she fell and broke her hip.

Mom’s recovering well, but she asked me to visit Connecticut for 10 days last month to help make a start sorting through dad’s library. I shipped myself about 700 books — maybe a quarter of the total. I figure it’ll take most of a year to catalogue this lot.

We’ll keep some in the family. Of the remainder, some of those that price less than $25 in today’s market will probably find their way onto the shelves at our brick-and-mortar store, Cat’s Curiosities, inside the Charleston Antique Mall at 560 S. Decatur Boulevard in Las Vegas, where up till now our small section on math, science, physics and engineering has been wedged in under “Aviation.” (Demand here in “The Entertainment Capital” has never been huge. But hey, you should see our selection of books on how to play poker!)

The rest will be posted online, gradually, at www.abebooks.com/servlet/SearchResults?sortby=0&vci=51238921 . Dad’s collection of antique Baedekers is already there.

But dealing with dad’s library isn’t the main reason I may appear to have been writing less, of late.

Last summer and fall, C.J. Hadley at Range magazine started asking me to write a profile on the last cattle rancher in Clark County, Nevada — Cliven Bundy. We’ve known the Bundys for years; Cliven is a great salt-of-the-earth American. But I’ve served my apprenticeship, long since. Writers who have passed 60 should use their remaining time to write what their muse tells them to write, and the word limits of your standard magazine profile did not appeal.

Then, in April, the BLM attacked Cliven with SWAT teams, snipers along the ridge lines, and scores of combat troops in full military regalia, all because Cliven 20 years ago stopped entering into voluntary contracts to allow this federal agency, which doesn’t own the land in question (since the federals have never bought that land from the state “with the consent of the state Legislature,” as required under the Constitution), to manage his ranch. C.J. insisted she now needed the piece more than ever, and that I could “Write it as long as it takes.”

I believe I sent her 20,000 words. For purposes of comparison, my new book will be about 60,000.

Trimmed a bit (they always DO that), the tale of the BLM’s spring raid on the last cattle ranch in Clark County — and their 20-year campaign to eradicate cattle ranching in the West, entirely — is scheduled to run as a 16-page supplement in the August issue of Range, on newsstands nationwide in early August. (Call 1-800-RANGE-4-U — 726-4348 — to purchase copies, or visit rangemagazine.com.)

So it was a busy month. But that’s not the main reason I may appear to have been writing less, of late.

The main reason I may appear to have been writing less, of late, is that I’ve spent the past year completing “The Testament of James,” a novel about a fellow in Providence, Rhode Island who finds rare and valuable lost books, using . . . somewhat unorthodox methods.

Immediately below this post, you should be able to find an excerpt — the first 3,600 words of “The Testament of James” — followed by a request. We’re looking for a particular kind of artist, you see, to undertake a piece of art for the dust jacket.

We hope to publish the first adventure of Matthew Hunter and Chantal Stevens by the end of the year.

Stay tuned.

7 Comments to “What would an engineer need to know about ethics? (‘Why I may appear to have been writing less of late,’ Part Three of Three)”

  1. MamaLiberty Says:

    Whew!! You have been a busy fella.

    I promise not to bug you about the book…. much. 🙂 And I will most definitely get a copy of the “Range” booklet.

  2. R R Schoettker Says:

    I really sympathize and concur with your dad’s approach to physics. My career was spent in the chemistry field and I always thought it far more interesting and more deepening to my comprehension to understand the historical path that this corpus of knowledge has taken; including the ‘dead- ends’ and mistaken side tracks to what is currently regarded as the best explanation. Understanding the personal circumstances of the individual practitioners as well as the social milieu they lived in also gave me a deeper satisfaction and I believe a more through education in the subject.

    The current state of the world and our society in particular are evidence of the dire lack of an ethical component in professional education although this is not unique to science but part and parcel of a species wide deficiency in this regard. What little it is touched on at all is for a “moral” (social) aspect but not the “ethical” (individual) emphasis actually needed.

    If you were not so clearly dealing with a plate already full with regard to writing subjects, I would suggest that you take up the task of fulfilling your fathers interest in ‘fleshing-out’ the bare-bones of factual science with the rich tapestry of historical and personal detail that his journeys and notes must represent.

  3. Vin Says:

    My thanks to R R Schoettker for his thoughtful comments. The old man’s papers are being preserved. — V.S.

  4. Sharon Secor Says:

    I want to thank you for sharing those recollections of your father. He sounds like a brilliant, wonderful man. I’m so sorry for your family’s loss and I hope your mother’s hip is faring well. Again, I thank you for allowing me a brief glimpse of a person so important to you. You wrote it well.

    Best Regards,

    Sharon Secor

  5. Historian Says:

    UVa had and I think still has an Engineering Humanities program. One must take a minimum of three courses in order to complete an Engineering degree. One of the courses I took there was “technology, agression and peace” and the subject was the ethics and morality of engineering with regard to the use of the work.

  6. Scott Alfter Says:

    I see that UNLV still requires this course for computer-science majors:

    CS 301 – Social Implications of Computer Technology

    http://tinyurl.com/p4fypaq (link goes to the current UNLV course catalog)

    “In-depth examination of moral and ethical issues created by advancing computer technology. Review of ethical theories and examination of issues in malfunction liability, privacy, power, ownership and intellectual property. Discussion of social trends and their possible effects. Extensive reading, classroom discussion, and class presentations required.”

    I ended up writing a paper for it looking into a series of computer-controlled radiotherapy machines that ended up killing some patients and disfiguring others. The manufacturer had taken some shortcuts that allowed them to operate in an unsafe manner; mechanical and electrical interlocks were replaced with software that turned out to have numerous bugs.

    It’s only one semester hour out of 120, but it’s a start.

  7. John Brown Says:

    Vin, Keep up the good work,patriots need to hear your words,thank you for the thoughts and good ideas you publish. Read all your stuff! Very thought provoking!.John