Engineering
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Episode 52
Featuring Simon Winchester
Our world hinges on our ability to have everything made just so. Precision engineering fuels and sustains modern society. Yet, it has also put our lives in peril and caused us to question what it is that we really want. Here, Simon Winchester discusses our quest for perfection and meaning. Can we really have both?

Few things are as responsible for the making of the modern world as precision engineering; yet, it is largely invisible to us. We live our lives in a customizable fashion, expecting the world to conform to our expectations, wants and desires. And yet, below this surface layer of personalization and complexity exists a world of exactness so precise that it evades our capacity to notice it. It is this world of increasing perfection, uniformity, and repetition that Simon Winchester writes so eloquently about. 

 

This conversation is neither a salute to precision or a rebuke of perfection. It is a commentary on both the genius brought to bear by humanity in reshaping the world, as well as an homage to the craftsmanship and personal touch that has given it meaning. 

 

Our endless striving for that which is flawless is most human. Yet, try as we might, we cannot rid the world of all its imperfections. Humanity, after all, is by its very nature hopelessly, beautifully, fatally flawed. "To err is human," said Alexander Pope. Forgiveness is divine. 

 

In chronicling the history of precision engineering, Simon Winchester, has not only found something forgivable in humanity's shortcomings but indeed, something worthy of honor and celebration.

 

In his book, “The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World” Winchester asks whether a wish for perfection is actually essential to modern health and happiness, whether it is “a necessary component of our very being?” He answers with a resounding, “no.”

 

Yet, the problem, as Winchester articulates it, is not simply an existential one. It is a technical one as well.

 

For proof, we’ve only to look to our jet engines, where microscopic errors can quickly cause cascading problems that lead to catastrophic loss of life. In fact, this is exactly what happened in 1989 on a United Airlines flight, when a microscopic metallurgical defect in the titanium disk caused the engine to fail. 112 people died as a result. Unfortunately, such tales aren’t relegated to the annals of history. Many similar events have occurred in the decades since. If the past is any guide, then as our technologies continue to multiply (we made 13 trillion transistors each second of 2015) and shrink in size, we can expect the threats associated with them to become larger and more pronounced. 

 

In today’s episode, Simon Winchester joins host Demetri Kofinas for a conversation that is equally a discussion of the significance of exponential technologies, an investigation into the kind of world we want to build, and an exploration of what it means to have a life well lived.

 

Producer & Host: Demetri Kofinas

Editor & Engineer: Stylianos Nicolaou

Join the conversation on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter at @hiddenforcespod

 

Simon Winchester is a British-American author and journalist. In his career at The Guardian newspaper, Winchester covered numerous significant events, including Bloody Sunday and the Watergate Scandal. He is the acclaimed author of many New York Times bestsellers, including The Professor and the Madman, The Men Who United the States, Atlantic, Pacific, The Man Who Loved China, A Crack in the Edge of the World, and Krakatoa, as well as his latest book, The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World

 

In 2006 Mr. Winchester was made an officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) by Her Majesty the Queen. He lives in western Massachusetts.

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