What happens when we calibrate something, and can the procedure apply to a person? For example, a forensic expert? Does it happen unbeknownst to an expert?
I said in a recent blog that this happens to an expert when he visually examines the site of a failure or accident in the built environment – he gets calibrated to the site. (Ref. 1)
Then I began to think about it.
This description of a visual examination came to me when I remembered hearing years ago about an American engineer asking to have some pits dug at a site that he was visually examining in Newfoundland, so he could “…get calibrated to the site”. The phrase resonated with me at the time.
This was George F. Sowers, a professional engineer with an international reputation in foundation and geotechnical engineering. (Ref. 2) All of us in this field of practice knew of him. This was a serious foundation problem if Dr. Sowers was called in.
Still, I thought, I better check the meaning of calibrate in the event Dr. Sowers stretched it a little.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary gives several definitions of calibrate, one of the last in a list of five is most applicable to Sowers use of the word:
“…to adjust precisely for a particular function, e.g., calibrate a thermometer”
Sowers was getting himself adjusted precisely to the site so he could function in a particular way – as the forensic engineer investigating the cause of the problem at this particular site.
You might say this is wandering away from a dictionary’s meaning. (Ref. 3) I don’t think so. One thing I’ve learned blogging on the nature and methods of forensic engineering in the past eight years is that words are taking on new shades of meaning all the time.
Using the word calibrate in a recent blog to describe what happens during a visual site assessment just came out of me from deep down inside. It was natural. Also knowing it was used this way by a quite reputable and experienced engineer years ago. And it’s supported by Merriam-Webster.
The word calibrate does suggest preciseness, and that’s a big element in a visual assessment of a site – you can’t plan a forensic investigation of a failure or accident until you’ve seen the site. Think, a picture (seeing something) is worth a 1,000 words.
Can you “calibrate” a forensic expert? Yes. It happens as a matter of course when s/he does a visual assessment of a site before commenting on how to determine the cause of the accident or failure, if more investigation seems necessary. And a degree of expert calibration occurs when s/he does a virtual visual assessment.
- COVID-19 and an initial forensic task aka a visual site assessment, sans social distancing. Posted June 1, 2020
- Sowers, George F., Introductory Soil Mechanics and Foundations: Geotechnical Engineering, 4th edition, MacMillan Publishing Co., Inc, New York
- Family Word Finder, A New Thesaurus of Synonyms and Antonyms in Dictionary Form, 896 pg. Reader’s Digest in association with Stuart B. Flexner 1975
(Posted by Eric E. Jorden, M.Sc., P.Eng. Consulting Professional Engineer, Forensic Engineer, Geotechnology Ltd., Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada firstname.lastname@example.org)