Theory is when everything is known, but nothing works.
Practice is when everything works, but no one knows why.
In Bike Gremlin garage, we combine theory and practice: nothing works and no one knows why! 🙂
This post gives my personal opinion on theory and practice in terms of (bicycle) mechanics and engineering.
During my life I’ve had lots of hands-on practical experience with repairs/maintenance of computers, bicycles and motorcycles (among other things). I’ve also done a lot of learning and studying (electrotechnics, IT engineering, economics). I’ve also had the pleasure to work with brilliant technicians, mechanics and engineers.
In time I’ve learned to value both the theory, practice, and user feedback. All those things work best when complementary, but all have their limits. A very good mechanic said, I’ll quote the meaning from memory:
“A good mechanic will do a job as good as it can be done. But it takes an engineer to truly know why the job needs to be done the way it is done. That’s very important in case something changes.”
When considering the engineer vs mechanic (theory vs practice) it is important to understand that I mean that as a concept, approach to problems, not so much as job description or (formal) education (though that does matter to a degree at least). There are mechanics who are practically engineers by everything, except the “job description” (and university degree), as well as engineers who are not able to visualize and comprehend some problems, and/or rely a lot on trial and error.
Talking about the approach, none of the mentioned is better or worse on itself. If I want something to just “get working” as soon as possible, I’d choose one man for the job – if I want to learn the problem cause and prevent it from happening again (even if it means not solving the problem then and there), I’d go with another. In those terms, I equally disagree both with engineers who disregard user feedback and technician experience, as well as with technicians/mechanics who look down on “theory”. Too many times in my life have I been able to find solutions to problems in books, before taking a wrench, while on many other occasions have I needed to ask old mechanics for solutions, because no one had bothered to write things down (later, using “reverse engineering”, with theory knowledge, the reason why problem is solved the way it is can be figured out – but you still needed to ask the old geezer, books being of no help).
There are people who can’t hold a wrench, or have problems improvising stuff, just as there are people who find learning stuff from books a lot more difficult. From the first ones you can hear things like “anyone can hold a wrench”, while from the latter ones a commonly heard phrase is: “theory is nice, but it doesn’t hold water in practice”. As I’ve tried to explain in this post, my belief is that both of these “camps” are dead wrong. One sided approach to a problem can hardly lead to understanding it and finding a solution.
Good knowledge of theory (mechanics, physics, metallurgy and new carbon-composite materials), lots of practice and good ear for interpretation of user feedback are a winning combination in my opinion and experience.