Monday, December 8, 2008

Hmm...another nerd!

I heard this conversation recently:

Non-Engineer A: You attending the function tomorrow?
Non-Engineer B: (in an unenthusiastic tone) Yea...
Non-Engineer A: What's wrong?
Non-Engineer B: It's all engineers...would be pretty boring. They don't talk, can't communicate properly.

OK...that was, to put it gently, a lame comment by NEB (Non Engineer B). Normally my brain treats lame comments as junk mail (not junk e-mail…Gmail does a good job in trashing that). We see them in the post box, sometimes we open it because it stands out (like funny lame comments), but it quickly ends up in the rubbish bin. But this comment, for reasons I am going to discuss, got me. Being an engineer, I was mildly offended by it. After having a chat with NEB, I see a glaring lack of knowledge or understanding of what engineers, particularly the ones in my field (Power Systems, SCADA) do. Is it plain old ignorance on their part? Or is it a fault on us - failing to educate the public of what we are doing; why we are doing; why we are doing the way we are doing.

We, engineers, I think, don’t emerge much in people’s mind these days. We don’t really feature in the news and people become aware of our existence only when there is the odd blackout or a bridge collapse. However, back in the early-mid 20th century, engineers were revered and sometimes placed even in a higher pedestal than doctors and scientists. Famous engineers like Edison, Nikola Tesla, and Charles Babbage made ground-breaking inventions, so grand in the scheme, that it changed the world forever. Their successes made headlines. Engineers were acknowledged then, not that they are not acclaimed today – but their contributions were strikingly visible to people. I believe people these days take most of the things for granted. Everyone is comfortable and things appear to be obviously simple. So the appreciation has worn off.

In the last few decades, engineers are still making the inventions, pushing the boundaries - but it is on the stuff that has already been done before. The inventions are incremental; they enhance/develop already existing inventions. Let me explain. Skyscrapers: The soon-to-be tallest building in the world, Burj Dubai, will hit newspapers as the one of greatest things ever done by man. Well, it is great. But it is not something people have not seen before. It is, as my Chinese friend puts it (sorry Tim...LOL), just another erection. Jumbo Jets: Airbus put in considerable amount of work get the new A380 built. But it is just another big plane to the public. There is far more interest in the features available in A380's business class than in the engineering used to get the plane's weight down. Long bridges: done. Space missions: oh yes. High speed computers, Whiz-bang weapons: OK, these may have come up in the latter part of 20th century, but engineers and the public saw it coming. The society is inured to these developments as they occur slowly over a period of time.

My point is: we engineers in the last few decades (I feel bad saying this) have not invented/built anything (with a few exceptions) of grand/remarkable scale that challenges all established ideas of scale, size and beliefs. We have not proposed preposterous ideas and make what everyone would consider an impending failure into a genius invention. Have we lost the spark? Or is it because, we have invented everything there is to be invented? Understood the whole universe armed with Newton's law and a fx82TL Casio calculator? Hmm…

Perhaps we engineers are victims of our own success. The role of modern engineer is more of maintenance- it is true to a certain extent - while adding some new developments (enhancements) here and there. I hope, with the exciting R&D done around (e.g. nanotechnology - I don’t know much about it…I’ve read about it and its sounds very interesting) the world, that we are in the threshold of another era of spectacular inventions.

Until then, when an engineering success in a typically obscure field like substation design, SCADA or power system protection gets into papers with a photo of an engineer with a big grin, people like NEB will read it and say/think [Refer to the blog post title].

1 comment:

  1. Lol, I think it's just a few conceited antisocial full-of-themselves engineers that give the rest a bad name. Of course I have engineer friends so I can't hate on them.

    Imagine the nerd comments us mathies get. Apparently we REALLY don't know how to have a good time. I'm guessing NEA and NEB were in science?