48 Hours to Chaos: An Engineer Looks at Life and How the World Really Works

48 Hours to Chaos: An Engineer Looks at Life and How the World Really Works

by John D. Waterman

ISBN: 9780983163602

Publisher Dennett Ink

Published in Nonfiction/Politics, Nonfiction/Philosophy, Self-Help, Science, History

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Sample Chapter


Let me say at the outset that I am all in favor of truth, beauty, justice and the American way, and I am opposed to evil and destruction. I would suspect that most of my readers will share this view, regardless of their political persuasion. I have an engineering background, and take a scientific attitude when observing behavior or solving problems. When I look around, I see a world filled with conflict and evil, yet I also see an environment of great wealth where people conduct their lives with respect for others and work hard for their own advancement. How do such opposing concepts coexist in the same society? Why do some people choose a life of crime while others seek to act in virtuous ways and promote peace? Why does a politician who has sworn to uphold his constitution descend into corruption? Questions like these seem to trouble a lot of people, and such concerns motivated me to start seeking answers. Here are a few of the situations that stimulated my curiosity, and eventually led to the writing of this book.

When I was a college student, I heard a professor say that civilization is always a mere forty-eight hours away from chaos. All an enemy would need to do is find a way to cut off the food supply, and society would be destroyed. After two days without food, all your friends and neighbors would revert to animalism, and the delicate fabric of society would be ripped to shreds along with all those people who are not the strongest and most vicious fighters. The image of that fate stuck to my impressionable young mind, and grew older with it.

Another of my instructors, a grad student, was pleased to announce that he and his new wife would soon accept job offers in industry. This would allow them to finally earn enough money to truly enjoy life. But the graduates were worried about the inevitability of Mother Nature stepping into their lives. The happy couple would soon have babies to care for. Such additional responsibilities would spoil their freedom and put a crimp in the enjoyment of their newfound wealth.

He set me to wondering whether we, as rational human beings, are actually just slaves to our animal instincts. Certainly children would be preventable, with a little forethought and self-discipline.

Have you ever noticed that you spend a significant part of your day eight feet away from certain death? When you drive to work in the morning, and again when you go home at night, you pass numerous vehicles on the road, hurtling along in the opposite direction at a closing velocity of 100 miles per hour. A simple counterclockwise motion of your steering-wheel would spell disaster. How do most of us consistently avoid this ever-present danger?

Sometime during the seventies I was watching an episode of the original Star Trek, where Captain Kirk swaps places with his counterpart in an alternate universe.[1] Due to a transporter malfunction, Kirk arrives in a civilization with a more brutal, animalistic outlook. The starship officers in this other universe advance in rank by undermining or assassinating their superiors. In his quarters Kirk discovers a spying device that can secretly monitor anyone aboard the ship and can also be used to eliminate them. His girlfriend in this episode encourages him to use it to destroy the competition, but he resists the impulse because of his more civilized nature.

How, I wondered at the time, could the people of this alternate universe survive for long in their advanced technological society, if they always practiced such anarchistic behavior? After a little thought I realized that such an attitude has been common in our own world history and is still practiced by those who hold power in dictatorships today. Stalinism is a term we use to describe this school of management practice.

During my career as an engineer in the aerospace industry, I ran across many people who had a different approach to life than I did. I became mildly curious about why they choose their behaviors, when I would have approached a similar situation from a different angle. I decided that these people must have a different understanding of life than I did, or at least used a different method for solving their problems. Some managers were tyrants who chose bullying as a way to make their subordinates toe the line. Some bosses led by example and inspired loyalty in their workers. Some people advanced to positions of power, yet were sorely lacking in competence. Some folks attained their positions by playing office politics, and succeeded despite their shortcomings. Is it not amazing that some organizations continue to function and deliver their products while burdened with such widespread inefficiencies? It is no wonder that every year a whole new set of books about management technique appears in the bookstores.

Perhaps an engineer learns a particular way of approaching and solving problems that is not the same as folks in other career fields. Or maybe people are raised differently by their mothers and start out with an alternate view of life, and how to behave. Some people believe that socialism holds the answers to all the world’s problems; others think some form of capitalism would be a preferable way to manage the affairs of mankind.[2]

Thoughts like these percolated in the back of my mind for many years, but during my engineering career I never took the time to think through the entire subject. Once I retired, I undertook the opportunity to make a thorough investigation. Among other things, I discovered that when you go looking for ethical or moral guidance you inevitably end up in religion. God imposes the shalls and shall-nots from His authority on high. Shouldn’t there be a way, I thought, to arrive at the same conclusions about the benefits of virtue and love by using the precepts of science and logic? Certainly rational thought should lead us through the temptations of evil to the higher planes of peace and beauty, without reliance on the doctrines of a particular religion or supernatural inspiration.

Throughout history many wars have been fought for the glory of one god over another. This despite the fact that religions teach us that killing is evil. Nevertheless, each army went into conflict convinced that God was on their side. Certainly, in these contests one side or the other was wrong, or both were. Can we conclude that the winner of every battle was the one favored by God? Personally, I cannot agree with that conclusion.

So let us consider the world from an engineering perspective. Take the materials we have available, provided by nature, and use them to build a lasting structure based on the foundations of logic, without resort to miraculous intervention. Let us take a look at how life arose on Earth. Let us analyze how mankind fits into the big picture. Let us consider how the various peoples and cultures on this planet interact and attempt to maintain their civilizations.

The purpose of this book is not to convert you from your current political persuasion to something else. It does not intend to change your religion from whatever you have chosen (or have been forced into) to a different one. The goal of this book is to provide you with a few mental tools, a new perspective, a way of thinking, to use in construction of a better understanding of the world you see around you today.

This is a book about life, and it is based upon the precepts of science. We will avoid conclusions based on religious belief or the command of God. We will not consider the question of life after death. We will consider life on Earth in the here and now, and necessarily the life of our children who follow us into the future. Death is considered the end of life. One’s reward or punishment from God or the devil in the afterlife is not addressed herein.

Please note that this is not a book on philosophy. Philosophy books contain terms like: a priori, epistemology, essentialism, existentialism, eschatology, ipso facto, metaphysics, monad, ontological, qua, teleology, vis-à-vis. We will not even bother to define these words because we will not use any of them. Other than this paragraph, you will find no further occurrences of them in this book. Ergo, this is not a philosophy book. Q.E.D.[3]

However, we will take one question that is commonly found in philosophy books and answer it up front, from an engineering perspective. The reader should already have the perception to grasp the actual meaning. “If a tree falls in the forest, and there is no one around to hear it, does it make any noise?” The correct answer, for those of you with any doubts, is: Yes, it makes a lot of noise. And the bigger is the tree that falls, the more noise it makes.

As human beings, the only creatures on Earth possessing the rational thought processes to understand the meaning of such questions, we intend to use our intellect to acquire the answers to even more significant questions. Let’s get started.

Chapter Notes:

[1] Mirror, Mirror, Star Trek episode #39, October 1967.

[2] Disclaimer for purposes of political correctness: The terms “man” and “mankind,” as used in this book, are certainly intended to include woman and child. We don’t wish to exclude over half our potential audience. We do not wish to offend anyone by our choice of using the traditional language reference to “man,” rather than the clumsier sounding terms “humanity” or “persons.” The individual reader is free to substitute gender-specific terminology suitable for his or her own taste.

[3] Q.E.D., quod erat demonstrandum, from the Latin meaning, “which was to be shown or demonstrated,” commonly used at the conclusion of a mathematical proof.



Civilization has suffered numerous mortal blows throughout the slow march of history, yet always seems able to regenerate from the ashes of its demise, much like the Phoenix of ancient mythology. The population has always bounced back from whatever tragedy it experienced, and subsequently advanced further than it had the time before. Why that should happen at all is one of the themes that motivated this book.

Our purpose here is to give you an enhanced view of civilization, and the world in general. We want to show how to use a set of mental tools, so to speak, for analyzing the events that occur around you, a set of ideas and techniques to employ in observing the attitudes that different people assume in arranging their own lives. This is done from the point of view of an engineer, a highly-trained professional who addresses problems with a technical and analytical frame of mind. An engineer believes in cause and effect, that things happen for a reason, and if he can figure out the reason, he can do something to affect the outcome. His goal is to build better things from the resources at hand, and he is always looking for a different way to do things. He asks why something works this way and not that way. If we change this feature on that machine, will it run faster or more economically?

How, you might ask, is an engineer different from any other student of science? Why should you listen to anything he says? Perhaps an old gag will help illuminate his mindset.

Three men, a physicist, a mathematician and an engineer, were sitting around a lunch table in the college cafeteria arguing about some deep, scientific abstraction.

The physicist looked up from his notes to see a beautiful female professor strolling past with her lunch tray. The eyes of all three men locked on target, watching her sashay to the next table. She sat down and began nibbling her salad.

The physicist leaned closer to his companions and whispered, “I know this lovely woman, and I can arrange to introduce one of you guys to her, but you will have to follow my instructions to the letter.”

“Yes, yes?” they urged him on.

“You must approach her in small steps to avoid being rejected, because she doesn’t like her men being pushy.”

“Of course,” they agreed, “tell us more.”

“In each step, you may only move closer to her by half the remaining distance, but you can take as many steps as you need.”

“Oh, no,” said the mathematician, giving up, “even with an infinite number of steps, I could never reach my goal.”

“No problem,” said the engineer, “I can get close enough!”


On a more serious note, we need to look at how anyone acquires understanding of a new subject. When we learn something new, we must compare how the new information fits in with things we already know, so we can decide whether to believe it or not. When a subject is entirely new, we need to have a tolerance for ambiguity. We will accept new information temporarily, on the authority of the speaker, until we have enough experience to judge whether it all makes sense. One person can never appreciate all aspects of a subject, because unanswered questions are always nagging at the mind.

When you were a child, your mother told you how to behave in many different situations without giving you any reasons for her directions. You trusted her, and she counted on her authority in giving you instructions. Don’t cross your eyes or they’ll get stuck like that. Don’t stick out your tongue at me. Help me wash the dishes. Don’t hit your sister. Don’t run out in the street. Brush your teeth every day. Don’t run with scissors. Don’t talk to strangers.

After a few years you figured out on your own the reasoning behind the instructions. She was trying to teach you to be polite, to show you how to do things, to warn you about the hazards of traffic, or tell you that nasty strangers could be trying to harm you.

By the time you are ready to pursue your engineering degree, you have become socialized and have learned hundreds of rules about how to behave in public. But the fact that you are going to college implies you need to learn many other things before you are ready to practice engineering in the real world.[1] In your math and physics classes, you may safely assume that everything the professor teaches you (about math and physics) is true, and you can safely incorporate this new information into your belief system. However, the things you learn from your history professor must be taken with a grain of salt. After all, a good portion of history has been written by the victors about the losers of previous conflicts, so the bias will favor the existing regime. Political history is most likely to be biased by the opinions of the person telling it to you, and is thus subject to your own interpretation.[2]

This suspicion about the truth of things one learns in school suggests a reason why many students choose to go into scientific fields rather than the humanities. Perhaps many of them would prefer to spend their lives dealing with facts they know to be true, rather than basing their decisions upon opinions of other people, or political expediency.

Therefore, adults in the real world need a healthy tolerance for ambiguity. We need to incorporate new knowledge through our mental filters, provisionally subject to modification as new facts come to light. We use our life experience to judge which things to believe.

This book is intended to guide you on the path to a better understanding of the world around you, while you cultivate your tolerance for ambiguity.

To that end, we may view human life as a long series of conflicts. We see good versus evil, cooperation vs. conflict, friendship vs. hostility, love vs. hate, allies vs. enemies. Each of these opposing forces, and hundreds of other pairs of conflicting attributes, may be visualized by placing them on a diagram, perhaps at the opposite ends of a line, or on opposite sides of a circle. A larger view, in three-dimensions, would place them on different sides of a sphere or bubble.

Consider, for example, love versus hate in a relationship between two people. There are many degrees of emotion between these extremes that we could arrange on our chart. On the side of love we might find friendship, respect, and trust. On the opposite end near hate we could see revulsion, enmity, malice. Somewhere between we might encounter indifference, toleration, or apathy. For each pair of conflicting words we could draw cycles or spheres of revolving ambiguity, like a great conglomeration of bubbles forming a froth of complexity.

Think of your kitchen sink with a stack of dirty dishes after dinner. Turn on the spigot to fill the sink, and squirt in some liquid dish soap. Watch the froth of bubbles gurgle up to cover the dishes and the water’s surface, ever higher and thicker. The complexity of this froth may be thought of as an analog for life. It grows as turbulence arises from beneath. It changes form as small bubbles coalesce into larger bubbles, or shrinks when the larger bubbles burst to disappear into nothingness.

Although this idea about a froth of complexity is merely a poetic analogy that has no scientific basis, it may help us to visualize the vast disorder that constitutes the many conflicting forces we observe around us.

As a metaphor, each bubble may be thought to symbolize one individual life, or one life form, or even a collection of life forces, all competing for survival with their neighbors. Some succeed and grow; others burst and disappear. Every bubble will exist for some limited lifetime before it finally pops and is eliminated from the picture.

Let us dive into the bubble bath of life to see if we might splash some enlightenment out of this bathtub of chaos.

Chapter Notes:

[1] This is not to suggest, of course, that a college education is necessary for a successful career. Some 55 percent of the U.S. population haven’t gone to college, yet these folks prosper in our economy. Any adult, regardless of his formal education, cannot avoid learning new things throughout his lifetime. Everyone is exposed to new products and opportunities in society, and in our diversity of everyday activities.

[2] We are not trying to irritate history professors here. Really. History professors form a valuable segment of our society in performing research and educating students. But we must always consider the source of any information, no matter where it comes from, including history professors, and engineers.


Copyright © 2011 by John D. Waterman

(Continues . . .)

Excerpted from "48 Hours to Chaos: An Engineer Looks at Life and How the World Really Works" by John D. Waterman. Copyright © 2011 by John D. Waterman. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Author Profile

John D. Waterman

John D. Waterman

John D. Waterman earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Electrical Engineering from the University of Illinois. He later survived a 30-year engineering career in the aerospace industry before researching and writing this book.

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