A Sincere Testament to the Joys of Engineering
August 8, 2016
Today I watched the 2007 Ron Howard documentary “In the Shadow of the Moon”, a loving tribute to the Apollo Moon missions of the 1960s and 1970s. The film chronicled the legacy of not just the astronauts but the thousands of men and women who devoted their talents, ingenuity, efforts, vision, courage, and lives to accomplishing what may have been the single-most challenging and world changing quest ever undertaken by the human race. And, by way of their monumental achievement, the film was also a testament to the power of engineering, and its ability to shape our future.
I’m a Professional Engineer, as are my wife and soon my son. But when I enrolled in the Engineering program at McMaster University in 1970, I didn’t really have a clue about what Engineers actually do. Oh sure, I knew that NASA employed thousands of them, and that they were the people responsible for making those Moon missions a reality. And I knew that it was what I wanted to do, because I was passionate about anything having to do with space. But if you had asked me what an Engineer actually did for a living, I probably would have hemmed and hawed, and mumbled something vague about making things.
And that’s sad, because most of what we see around us, the machines, the devices, the technology, vehicles, buildings, products, systems, and services that we encounter and use every day, have been designed by Engineers. So why doesn’t everyone know that? Why don’t most people know what Engineers do?
Personally, I suspect it’s largely due to a perception by the media that anything new in the world – any progress made in the fields of medicine, technology, computers, etc. – is the results of science, and the efforts of Scientists. Not to besmirch the noble field of science, but this widely-held notion that all technological progress is made possible by science, and science alone, is very wrong.
Let me attempt to set the record straight by looking first at science. Science pursues the unknown, the things we still don’t know about our world and its workings. It explores the edges of our known world, by poking and prodding at nature’s mysteries until she coyly reveals yet another secret, perhaps large, perhaps small.
Much of this research is painstakingly incremental, as Scientists apply the tried-and-true practice of (1) asking a question about some puzzling aspect of nature, (2) researching what’s known and not known about it, (3) postulating or formulating, often with mathematics, a theory or hypothesis – a kind of educated guess – to focus their investigation, (4) rigorously testing that hypothesis through precise and thorough experimentation and/or analysis, (5) analyzing the results and comparing them to the original hypothesis, (6) altering and refining the hypothesis and conducting further tests or analysis as needed, and finally (7) publishing a detailed account of the experimental process and results for peer review and substantiation or refutation by others familiar with that field of research.
These 7 steps are known collectively as the scientific method. Since its introduction into what was once known as natural philosophy to the likes of Galileo and Newton, it has proven itself time-and-time again to be a reliable, systematic, and trustworthy approach to unraveling nature’s mysteries. This is how science has been able to make such remarkable headway in its understanding of the underlying wheelworks of nature. Without a doubt, the scientific method has helped cast a revealing light on the primitive darkness, and has all but banished the ignorant superstitions that were all too prevalent at one time. And perhaps that’s why many people, and one major political persuasion, seem to fear what science has to say about our world. Because they don’t like science popping the bubble of their ignorance.
The scientific method demands repeatability and rigid verification of new discoveries before they can become widely accepted. So it may appear on the surface, to outsiders, that scientists are always questioning and disputing each other’s work. Many people even go so far as to suggest that this proves that something is wrong with science, when even its practitioners “argue” with each other. But nothing could be further from the truth. What it really proves is that new scientific claims require unimpeachable substantiation before they are deemed worthy of acceptance. So, rather than exposing weakness in certain ideas (like Evolution or Climate Change), this internal questioning process actually makes these theories stronger, and science more responsible for what it does, and how it does it.
By the way, it must also be pointed out that the experiments Scientists conduct in their pursuits are often designed and built by Engineers and Technologists to ensure that the equipment reliably, and with the finest precision and least amount of error, measures precisely what the Scientists are investigating. In this way, Engineers are an integral part of the scientific method, and of science itself.
What science pursues is truths – or as close as it can come to truths – about the workings of nature, our physical world, our universe, and even ourselves. But sometimes what they discover, while maybe interesting and perhaps even worthy of further investigation, is not always immediately applicable to our day-to-day needs. In fact, this was a widespread concern during all those Moon missions. A lot of people questioned what all that so-called research was actually getting us. How were we benefiting from it? Of what use was all the knowledge being gained about weightlessness, empty space, Moon dust and rocks? What was the public getting for its billions of tax dollars besides Tang™ breakfast drink and Velcro™?
The job of science is to ask and get answers to questions about our world, whether or not those answers can be practically applied to life’s problems. The debate continues to this day about whether science should be “pure” (knowledge for knowledge’s sake), or “applied” (knowledge for practical use). Applied research leads to most technological advancements, so that’s where the big money is these days. And it’s also where engineering comes in.
Engineering is the practice (some might say the art) of taking what is known about the world – its forces, principles, and properties – and harnessing it for practical purposes. In fact, engineering is often referred to as Applied Science.
Engineering has been around since humans first learned to use sticks as levers, and stones as tools. If those who observed the forces of wind, water, and gravity can be thought of as the first “scientists”, then those who figured out how to harness the wind to blow sails, how to make falling water turn waterwheels to crush grain into flour, or how to use weights on a cord to move heavy loads, those creative people can be thought of as the first “engineers”.
Essentially, Engineering takes what science discovers and turns the more useful discoveries into practical things.
Unlike what the mass media would have you believe, it’s not Scientists who invent new devices, who come up with new technologies, or who solve physical problems by harnessing the principles and properties of nature. Engineers do that. And even if a given Scientist were to invent something practical using a principle they’ve discovered, they’re really wearing an Engineer’s hat when they do.
A lot of historic figures whom we might think of as Scientists were, in fact, Engineers by any other name. Da Vinci and his inventions? Engineering. Galileo and his telescope? Engineering. Faraday’s DC motor? Engineering. Tesla’s polyphase motor, Marconi’s radio (using 17 of Tesla’s patents), Bell’s telephone (simultaneously invented by Elisha Gray), Gutenberg’s printing press, Watt’s steam engine. All Engineering. Starting to get the picture? The Golden Gate Bridge, the Chunnel, the transnational railways, the Empire State Building, the Suez Canal, Cellphone Networks, the iPad, the fabrics in your clothes, communications & GPS satellites, the appliances in your kitchen, the derailleur on your bike… all great and useful engineering achievements. But for some reason, people still tend to think of the designers of these things as Scientists.
It’s easy to understand the public’s confusion, because Scientists and Engineers often work on the same projects… at least on the big important ones that push the envelope. For example, the Manhattan Project during WWII was tasked with building an atomic bomb to harness a recently discovered property of radioactive matter… that if its mass density is intensified by compression, the radiation level will rise exponentially, reaching a threshold at some critical mass that will result in a runaway cascade effect that generates an energy build-up and subsequent explosion of incredible power. After all, that’s what Einstein’s famous mass-energy equation E=mc² hinted at, and it’s what Enrico Fermi confirmed with his Uranium experiments in his lab in Chicago.
So Scientists, mostly Physicists, were brought to Los Alamos NM by the bus loads to continue with this research and to find out just what kind of Uranium worked best, what the critical mass density threshold was, how much energy could potentially be produced, and how the resulting radioactive blast wave would spread out. All important questions. But once those questions were answered, and probably even while helping the scientists answer those questions, it was the unsung Engineers (also brought in on the project) who figured out how to compress the mass rapidly and uniformly enough to produce the optimal density needed to generate an explosion that derived the maximum amount of energy from that lump of radioactive matter. In short, it was the Engineers who actually built the bomb. But in most historical accounts of the undertaking, it’s the Scientists who are prominently named, and who became world famous. You probably know some of those names. Fermi, Oppenheimer, Feynman, maybe even Slotin (the sole Canadian Physicist). But I doubt that you could name even a single Engineer from the Manhattan Project. Because they did not become famous.
Engineers and Scientists often work in tandem. Most research labs will employ Scientists to decide upon avenues of theoretical research, with Engineers and Technologists on staff to design and build the equipment necessary to test their theories. The CERN super-collider in Switzerland is a perfect example of science and engineering working together to push the boundaries of scientific research. But this is not always the case. Many industries employ hundreds, sometimes thousands of Engineers, yet not a single Scientist. That’s because the work these engineers do makes use of established principles and properties of nature and doesn’t require further exploration into the unknown. Yet, for some reason, Scientists still seem to get all the publicity (but I’m not bitter… not really).
Still, the distinction can be unintentionally blurred, even by those with the best of intentions. Andy Weir’s bestselling Sci-Fi novel “The Martian”, and the subsequent award-winning blockbuster film starring Matt Damon, is a great example of engineering in fiction. Sure, it stretches the limits of disbelief, especially towards the climax of the story. But the real infraction comes early on, when our stranded hero, Mark Watney – faced with a desperate situation and need to survive his protracted isolation on Mars – vows to “Science the shit out of this!” Instead, he should have vowed to “Engineer the shit out of this”, because no science was involved. It was all engineering… the mission, the survival, and the rescue.
My wife was recently awarded the Canadian national Medal for Distinction in Engineering Education by Engineers Canada. While at the reception held in Charlottetown PEI, we were seated with several of the organization’s top executives. In the course of the gala evening, the conversation got around to how relatively few females are enrolled in Engineering programs in Canada today, and how to promote the profession to those who aren’t familiar with what this rewarding career involves, and what it has to offer.
I suggested – with what I thought was my best sincere pitch – that what the profession needs is a TV show. After all, there are lots of shows about doctors and lawyers, about police, soldiers, chefs, pawnshop owners, and bearded duck-call makers, about hunters, loggers, ice-road truckers, fashionistas, waitresses, private detectives and, yes, even about a small cadre of young scientists, some of whom can handily solve nature’s mysteries but can’t seem to get a date. But there are no shows about real Engineers or engineering.
The lone Engineer on TV these days is Howard Wolowitz from The Big Bang Theory. And he gets relentlessly teased about it by his scientist friends. Sure, we used to have the fictional Commander Scott and Geordi La Forge on Star Trek, but it could be argued that they never actually did any real Engineering. MacGyver was more of a knowledgeable mechanic (although I do retain hope for the new series). Mythbusters came close, but their problem-solving approach was very hit-and-miss, and not true engineering. And Battlebots doesn’t focus on the engineering, only on the mechanical mayhem and carnage. Other technical challenge shows rely on what I call backyard tinkering, not on true well thought-out engineering. No, what we need, I proposed, is a show that realistically portrays what Engineers do… with some leeway allowed for dramatic interest, of course. But, while I was politely listened to, I don’t think my TV show idea was taken too seriously. *
The Engineering Method
But it does raise an interesting question – what do Engineers actually do, anyway? And how does it differ from what Scientists do?
Well, just as there is a scientific method (see the 7 steps above), there is likewise an engineering method. It’s a tried-and-true practice whereby technical problems are solved by breaking the path to a solution into a series of steps that include (1) defining the details of the problem or need, (2) conducting research into similar problems and solutions, or natural principles that may be involved, (3) specifying the expected outcomes required of a suitable solution, (4) brainstorming potential solutions or approaches (this is the creative part), (5) selecting from these the best proposed solution or approach, (6) conducting the developmental work (an aspect of engineering often referred to as Research & Development), (7) building a detailed computer simulation or prototype model, (8) testing, refining, or even redesigning the simulation or prototype, and (9) presenting and recommending a final design. Often the Engineers will be directly involved in the actual implementation of their designs. Sometimes they won’t.
Engineering can be very exciting stuff. And it’s not always about machinery. It’s most often a collaborative team effort with other Engineers, as well as scientists, technologists, machinists, construction personnel, users, and customers. And these days, as our products become a closer part of our person, engineering calls on an understanding of human physiology, personal needs, and biological responses. It also often requires consideration for the social impact of the resulting designs, as well as a focus on environmental concerns and considerations. Today’s engineering is not what it was 46 years ago when I enrolled at McMaster University. It’s much more personal and human.
Engineers have to be broad, versatile thinkers. Because at each step in the engineering method, a different set of skills, knowledge, and instincts are called into play. The search can be much like solving a mystery as you home in on an ideal and elegant solution. And the research & development steps can be technically gratifying. When a solution is found that optimally satisfies the initial requirements, it can literally be a moment of profound elation and even celebration. And, unlike science where the end result is often a modest refinement to an existing theory or principle, a good engineering solution can truly be appreciated when the fruits of your labours create a working device or system that has never existed before, yet has now been made possible through your ingenuity and efforts. It’s a highly rewarding field of endeavour.
Unlike science, where newly discovered principles and theories are often buried in the pages of some obscure scientific journal, many engineering solutions are large in scale and often impressive to see, like a new bridge design, an environmentally-responsible power dam, a renewable energy installation, a power-efficient building, a way of quickly and conveniently detecting precious metals in ore samples, a working quantum computer, a new kind of cellphone, a biomedical breakthrough, and so much more. Most of the cool gizmos, gadgets, and inventions that people are fascinated with these days were invented by Engineers.
Science and Engineering
Here’s a hypothetical (and purely fictional) example of the two fields at work.
Let’s say that a scientist, a Physicist in this case, works at a University where he studies the properties of light passing through transparent materials. It’s known that light tends to slow down when it passes through solid materials, but he wonders what the effect would be if the light beam could be made to twist and spin in a tight vortex like a tornado. So, with the help of his Engineers, they come up with a helical crystalline matrix that should do the trick by guiding the light beam along a helical path. The Engineer and his technologists build the apparatus. Then the Scientist sets up and runs his experiments to test this effect, and the results are measured. Perhaps, to his amazement and delight, the results show that the speed of the light beam passing through the helical crystal matrix is actually 0.002% faster than light in a vacuum, which has been traditionally thought to be the fastest light can travel in the natural universe. Controlling his excitement, the scientist repeats his experiments in several different ways to verify his results. When he’s satisfied there are no errors or omissions, he calms down and writes a formal paper describing his investigation, detailing his apparatus and experimental methods, and presenting his remarkable findings. He then submits his paper to the editors of the distinguished scientific journal Nature, who read it, consider its merits, and then approve publication of his paper. Soon after the issue hits the stands, other scientists read his paper, then go about trying to reproduce his work in order to either confirm or disprove the claim that light can be coaxed into moving faster than it does in a vacuum. Because, if they can confirm these results, then they’ll go about testing other crystalline materials and structures to see if they can coax even faster speeds out of a beam of light. And the accepted laws of physics will need to be tweaked a bit. This is science at its best. No one is really thinking about applications, they’re just trying to explore and account for previously unseen properties of nature.
Now, let’s say there’s an Engineer working on a new optical computer at a Photonics lab (Photonics is the use of light as a data acquisition and transmission medium in electronic systems). This Engineer has been looking for a way to speed up the data communication speeds in a prototype computer that uses light instead of electricity as its data medium. In her research, the Engineer happens upon that copy of Nature and reads the paper that describes how light speeds up in a helical crystal matrix. Encouraged, she figures out a way to produce a flexible glass fibre that has the properties of a helical crystal matrix. She then designs and builds a test rig to compare the speed of a beam of laser light in a conventional glass fibre versus this new helical crystal fibre. Sure enough, she confirms the speed increase. It’s exactly what she’s been looking for. So she presents her findings to the rest of the engineering team, who decide to investigate the practical and cost-effective use of these new optical fibres in their computer. Engineering, as you can see, is all about the practical use of science.
Making Possible the Impossible
Watching Ron Howard’s tribute to the Apollo lunar program brought all that fascination with engineering back to me. I still got shivers watching the fiery launch of that huge vehicle propelled by those massive rocket engines. I was still in awe of the shielding and life-support systems and simple computers that kept those men safe and alive, and on target, in the frozen depths of deep space for so many days. I shook my head in amazement at those touch-and-go moments of risky lunar descent and touchdown, and that first lone footstep by a solitary human onto the pristine lunar dust. Incredible! We had accomplished the impossible.
And that kind of excitement is still part of the profession today. Just watch the latest NASA TV coverage of any remote space mission, and witness for yourself the giddy thrill and wild exhilaration expressed by the engineering team upon a successful landing. Then ask yourself how many other professions ever get to experience that kind of unbridled emotional rush in response to one of their achievements.
It all makes me recall very vividly why I wanted to be an Engineer in the first place. I never once regretted my career choice, even though I never did get to work for NASA. But even in retirement, I still look at the world through the eyes of an Engineer. When I see problems I think up solutions in my mind. I eagerly keep abreast of new scientific discoveries and think of the possible applications. And I keep up-to-date with new technologies and wonder where they’ll lead us personally, socially, and globally.
I’ve concluded that the world will never need fewer Engineers, but rather will continue to need even more of them in the years to come. Because I doubt we’ll ever run out of problems to solve or needs to satisfy. Engineers will always be needed to shape the future.
I’m just sayin’
* By the way, that reality TV-show that I proposed to Engineers Canada would involve a team of young and gender-mixed engineers-in-training who, under the supervision of some seasoned pros, would visit world places in need of engineering resolutions to pressing community or regional needs… a bridge, a well, an irrigation system, flood-proofing or mudslide-proofing, isolated access to power or communications, a way of maintaining a traditional way of life while becoming more environmentally responsible… engineering jobs that would challenge our rookies’ talents, while benefitting the locals, all the while entertaining and informing the viewing audience.
Each week I envision a distant job site being chosen from a list of different exotic locales, each with some distinctive and interesting social or environmental need that would test not only the engineering skills of our rookie crew, but their personalities and stamina as well. Wild animals stealthily prowling the job site at night. Uncooperative government or military officials. Disease or famine. Monsoons or drought. Theft or threats. Personal conflicts. During each episode, the team would solve the main problem using the engineering method, but in dealing with the side issues they would also learn about themselves, their physical and emotional limitations, and their cultural biases. I think it would all make for highly dramatic and entertaining TV, even for non-engineers.
And, who knows, it might just light a spark of interest in some young guy or girl looking to make a career choice, and seeking something challenging, interesting, exciting, and satisfying to do with their lives.