The Truth of Structural Design

There seems to be a progression of understanding as one designs structures. At first, as college students, we have well defined analytical techniques that appear objective and clear (there is truth). Later we learn this idea of structural design is naïve. What we do is not clean. As the years go by, there is an improvement of the design of structures which combines the simple objective science with more complex subjective decision making requiring sound judgment (heuristics). There is not truth anymore, what is left is "good enough". Problems encountered by the structural engineer are complex and nuanced and require experience and judgment to better sift through the multiple design ideas. If there was a progression in the mind of a structural engineer, I think it is similar to the one that the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote about in “Twilight of the Idols” (see MSC article). While Nietzsche was generally referring to raising the human spirit to a higher level, it is similar to my experience, going from 1 to 6, as a structural engineer over the fifteen years:

1. The ”truth” of structural design – is attainable for the sage, the pious, the virtuous man.

2. The “truth” of structural design - unattainable for now, but promised for the sage, the pious, the virtuous man.

3. The “truth” of structural design - unattainable, indemonstrable; but the very thought of it - a consolation, an obligation, an imperative.

4. The “truth” of structural design - unattainable? At any rate, unattained. And being unattained, also unknown. Consequently, not consoling, redeeming, or obligating: how could something unknown obligate us?

5. The “truth” of structural design - an idea which is no longer good for anything, not even obligating - an idea which has become useless and superfluous - consequently, a refuted idea: let us abolish it!

6. The “truth” of structural design — we have abolished. What world has remained? The apparent one perhaps? But no! With the true world we have also abolished the apparent one.

Thus, we have abolished truth in practice even if we pretend it still exists in school. Good enough is enough in practice (i.e. a good enough design decision = a correct answer). That doesn't make it easy, “good enough” is actually very hard. It is apparent in this progression the great extent to which the individual engineer can influence the design. I have found that the design of structures is less dispassionate and logical than I used to earlier in my career. There are no clear-cut answers to the complex and diverse problems we face. This is not to diminish the role of analytical tools to assimilate knowledge of phenomenon, it is just that it is simply not enough.

(E Nelson,  portion of MSC Twilight of the Idols)

Published “Twilight of the Idols” Modern Steel Construction Magazine

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