Creativity in STEM and Bill McLean

I am blessed to have received a classical liberal arts education. I was homeschooled through high school, and then graduated with a Bachelor’s in liberal arts from the Great Books program of Thomas Aquinas College. After that I found myself at a bit of a loss. My education did what it promised: it ignited wonder, vivified my imagination, and engaged my heart and emotions while at the same time developing my calculating mind. But, though I liked the philosophy I’d studied, I didn’t think that I was capable of doing it for the rest of my life while staying attached to reality. Moreover, I didn’t really like the idea of relying on the charity of others for my livelihood, as I would likely have to do at least indirectly in becoming a professor and taking a job at any school whose existence rests on the beneficence of its donors. Not that there’s anything the slightest bit wrong with doing so; we need great teachers, which is why successfully wealthy people are willing to donate to the institutions that foster them! But we need the donors too, and part of me wanted the challenge of seeing if I could be a provider in that way.

So academia was out. But then, how was I to bring the goods of my education into the rest of my life? This talk of joy and wonder and imagination sounds great, in theory, but the modern world is hard, scientific, competitive, complex, and process driven. Did a traditional education in the ways of wonder and imagination really prepare me as a young graduate to thrive in the 21st century world?

In hindsight, this question of how to integrate what’s wonderful with what’s practicable has been one of the central themes of the 33 years I’ve lived thus far. The liberal arts tradition of education might itself be to blame here. The “liberal arts” are often defined sharply in opposition to “servile arts” as those that befit free men versus the tasks given to slaves. Was I choosing mental servitude for the sake of material thriving? This left me wondering: could I pursue the so-called servile arts in a way that exercised my wonder and imagination, in a way which led towards freedom?

To express my dilemma more generally, does the student trained in the ways of wonder and imagination have the wherewithal to bountifully provide food, shelter, and security for himself, his family, and his countrymen, to be as free physically as he is intellectually? Ideally, should we not only be able to be free both practically and intellectually, but able to do so in a well-integrated way, without having to painfully wait it out through a boring workday while hoping for a precious little time afterwards with which to dwell on things which actually feel worth freely pursuing?

I decided to pursue a so-called STEM career, having some hope that it would not only allow me to support a family and be in a position to be generous, but also would involve interesting work. I had always liked math and science and airplanes, so I decided on aerospace engineering, this time starting with a second bachelor’s at a state school.

File:China lake.jpgUnfortunately, many of the things which I’d loved most about science and engineering up to that point were significantly lacking in the engineering schooling I experienced, things like exercising imaginative creativity, or the joy of seeing the incarnation of abstract theories in real physical devices. Much of what I actually found seemed to be a sort of advanced box-checking exercise. I hoped that this was an anomaly, perhaps due to the field of aerospace engineering being past its prime or to my having chosen a lackluster engineering program, and kept doggedly on, ultimately getting a job as an aerospace engineer at China Lake Naval Base, the U.S. Navy’s last remaining live fire test range, whose vast expanse stretches out at the southeast base of the beautiful Sierra Nevada mountains. But there too I experienced a certain deadness, an acedia whose sources I couldn’t completely pin down. There were clearly embers of what had once been a fire of inspiration at China Lake; I could sense them in the glow in an old engineer’s eyes, or the cool artifacts around the base, or here or there in the pages of a dusty book in the library. But despite the many ostensibly cool projects and the billions of dollars of annual budget on the base, the original fire was clearly long since gone, burned out in a sea of red tape and wasted time and money. I was tempted to give up on engineering altogether. However, there was one particular ember which really stood out, giving me confidence that engineering had, in fact, existed at least at one time in something like the way I had always idealized it, and in turn giving me something to continue to strive for in the engineering world.

File:2008-12 mclean ship name01.jpgThat glowing remnant from a past age was found in the collected speeches of Dr. William B. McLean. The son of a Presbyterian minister, William Burdette McLean (1914–1976) was a civilian physicist at what was then known as the Naval Ordnance Test Station (NOTS) in the desert of China Lake, California, during the early Cold War. He led the development of the Sidewinder air-to-air missile, a brilliant and innovative piece of engineering, which was carried by aircraft defending the west from encroaching communism around the globe in greater numbers than any other missile before or since. After leading the Sidewinder team in the late '40s and early '50s, McLean was promoted to Technical Director at NOTS during which time he led what is remembered by those involved as a golden era of engineering and innovation on the station in the service of America's freedom, with the engineering output to prove it. In other words, he was neither a slave nor a mere dreamer; he was both a capable and inspiring leader and one of the true practical geniuses of American history.

While McLean didn't write books, he was often asked to speak, particularly after the success of the Sidewinder program, and we are fortunate enough to have the transcripts of many speeches. I found these typewritten transcripts fascinating; ultimately they renewed my belief that imagination and creativity should be an integral part of my career field.

One of the things which comes through most clearly in reading Bill McLean's speeches is the centrality of his regard for creativity.
“I believe if the United States is to be successful in either its military or economic competition, we will in the future need to learn to appreciate and to foster creative design capabilities.”

But he also saw that the typical formation of the young squelched creativity.

The number of people who start life with a high degree of creative ability and creative drive is unknown because the forces of society begin so rapidly to act to repress and restrain the curiosity and experimental operations of the young child.

He believed the central effort of the creative scientist is to see a good solution in his imagination.

The designer… needs to outline as many ways of accomplishing the design as he can imagine… Industrial laboratories are handicapped by a natural desire to improve on what exists, by military specifications that are unimaginative.

This means that managers must encourage the creative freedom of those on their teams.

As a man responsible to others for the function of managing research… I need to be in a position to understand and accept new ideas and eventually to judge the ability of people to carry out the work which they are interested in doing. In this type of judgment I would place first priority on the interest and enthusiasm which a man shows in the work which he is doing and, second, on his skill in visualizing and planning the crucial experiments which must be carried out in order to check new theories or hypotheses.

This visualization is so critical for effective and elegant design that McLean is willing to recommend a radically unconventional design methodology, namely design residing in the imagination of a single designer, along the lines of a wall mural.

It seems to me that the creation of a missile system would progress more effectively if it were recognized to have many of the same problems as the creation of a large mural painting. Many useful analogies might then result. The creation of a mural is obviously too large a job for one man and yet, at the same time, it must represent an integrated whole, rather than a collection of parts. In the case of the mural, we have adopted the practice of selecting a master artist whose responsibility is to conceive a picture in accord with the general message which is to be conveyed. He then uses his imagination, his understanding of the materials and tools available, and his knowledge of the abilities of his assistants to lay out an overall design. Committees can review his work and make suggestions, but they cannot take over his responsibility for it. Once the general concept has been sketched out, many people can begin to work using their own specific abilities to fill in the various parts of the picture. As a result, we have an integrated creation that reflects primarily the skill, ability, and experience of the master artist, but which also uses the individual skills of his assistants to a maximum.

McLean proposed that management strategy that aims to maximize imaginative creativity and enjoyment is the necessary way to both practice and preserve the freedom we so deeply treasure.

I hope that we as a Nation can choose in the management of our business and our military programs the type of management which maximizes enjoyment, participation, and the contributions of individual creativity, rather than the type of management whose goals and objectives are set from the top and which is budgeted, planned, and integrated to achieve objectives on schedule without consideration of possible creative inputs. One type of management will strengthen what we have variously called ‘The Free Competitive System,’ ‘The American Way of Life,’ or ‘Life Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.’ The other type of management by overinsistence on the importance of budget and schedule, comes perilously close to conditioning us to the type of organization which believes that man's highest goal is to achieve and surpass through successive five and ten year plans.

What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?

Modern culture stands in awe of the pragmatic fruits of empirical science. However, many are content (as the central planners were) to extort these fruits by any means, leaving the wonder and gratitude which ought to accompany their uncovering (and which originally gave rise to scientific inquiry itself) as a relic of the past. Especially in large corporations and in government, technological development is often seen as the product of a vast machine, the result of a method, in which individual people are merely cogs; taken to its extreme, this view sees imagination, inspiration, and even freedom as no longer necessary. The classically educated liber, on the other hand, sees the wonder in the world, the necessity of a rightful ordering of technology, and the value of knowledge for its own sake as well as for its fruits, but may not always have a ready answer to the often earnestly asked question, “but what are you going to do with that education if not teach or become a priest?” After the initial shock of the encounter with this widening gulf between practicality and wonder, however, one discovers that it is not only possible but necessary that we bridge the gulf, both for the sustenance of wonder (and wonderers) and also for the fullest attainment of the pragmatic. And with the transformation offered by the Christian understanding of the redemptive power of suffering and the Cross, classical thought becomes capable of seeing the full truth, that man is called to imitate his Creator with smaller creations of his own, taking joyful hope not only in the fruits of his labors but also in loving acts of labor itself. But fully carrying this spirit of wonder filled creativity into the pragmatic world of modern technology is a difficult task, undertaken by few and done well by fewer. Those rare few who have really done so well are examples worth treasuring and learning from. Bill McLean is one such treasure.