Math vs engineering

I am currently a full time software engineer. I don’t really like the work and I mostly find it draining though I guess I’m not bad at it, though I’m definitely not great. Much of it is process and understanding of requirements and the specific codebase (that includes the tools it uses), which is more often than not not fun at all though I find it more tolerable now. It pays well but is low status, as Michael O Church loves to say. The work is rather lowbrow by STEM standards. I was thinking that it loads not very highly on g (at least line of business engineering) but rather highly on conscientiousness and ability to grind. The people who excel are at it are those who can do that type of work for long hours and not feel tired, and often ones who have the genes to sleep 5 hours a day and still be fine. It’s not a very attractive or sexy ability, but it is a very useful and respectable one. One of my colleagues spent 4 years working on FPGAs just to design one chip and he said after that experience, he’s not gonna do anything related to chip design again. I know that chip design is much more technically involved, much higher barrier to entry, and is actually the hardest to replicate part of computing. Anybody can build a website but only a few places have the expertise and infrastructure to make a good CPU. The latter requires a sophisticated industrial process, the fabrication part, which involves much advanced applied physics, none of which I know. I’ve heard that because fabs are a physical constraint which run in cycle, it is imperative to meet deadlines, which means you need the types who can pull all-nighters, who can toil day in day out in the lab on very detail oriented work (that’s often grindy, not artsy or beautiful like math is) with little room for error. It also pays less than software engineering, for obvious economic reasons. On this note, I recall adults knowledgeable were telling me not to major in EE because there are few jobs in it now. Electronics is design once mass produce. So many of them have been outsourced.

Engineering is hard hard work. Not intellectually hard (though there is that aspect of it too in some of it), but grindily hard. Plumbing is inevitable, and you have to deal with some dirty complexity. You need a very high level of stamina and of some form of pain tolerance that I don’t regard myself as very high in, though I’ve improved substantially. It’s not a coincidence that engineering is what makes the big bucks, for individuals (somewhat) and for economies (or execs in them). Rich countries are the ones who can sell high end engineering products like cars and CPUs.

Mathematics, theoretical science, on the other hand, is much more about abstraction of the form that requires a higher level of consciousness. Math and theoretical physics are far more g-loaded than engineering is and attracts smarter people, a different breed of personality, those with a more intellectual upper class vibe that I see largely absent in software engineering. These are used in engineering, but in it, they are merely tools with the focus being on design and on practical application, with cost as a major consideration. It is like how in physics, there is much mathematics used, but because math is just a tool for it, physicists can be sloppy with their math. Pure theoretical science is much more deep and far less collective and organizationally complex, with a pronounced culture of reverence for individual genius and brilliance. There is also an emphasis on beauty and on some pure elevation of the human spirit in this type of pure thought.

I myself am by nature much more in the theoretical category though I am for now in the practical one, pressured into it by economic circumstances, which I am looking to leave. I will say though that I have derived some satisfaction and confidence from having some practical skills and from having done some things which others find directly useful, as well as having endured some pain so I know what that feels like. In the unlikely case that I actually make it as a mathematician, I can say that unlike most of my colleagues I didn’t spend my entire life in the ivory tower and actually suffered a bit in the real world. I can thereby be more down-to-earth, as opposed to the intellectual snob that I am. I will say though that I do genuinely respect those who are stimulated by engineering enough to do it 24-7 even in their spare time. I don’t think I will ever be able to experience that by my very makeup. However, I do at least suspect that I am capable of experiencing to some extent a higher world that most of those guys fail to, which should bring me some consolation.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.