USS Clueless -- I'm proud to be an engineer

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I'm proud to be an engineer

When I was a kid, and we talked about what we wanted to be when we grew up, you'd hear the usual things: football player, rock star, actor, astronaut (I grew up in the 1960's), President of the United States. You never heard anyone say they wanted to be an engineer.

My dad was an Electrical Engineer. He spent most of his career in Portland, Oregon, working for the Army Corps of Engineers as a civilian employee, helping to design the power houses for various hydro-electric projects in the Columbia River basin. I certainly don't know about all the projects he was involved in over the years, but I do know that one of the big ones was a second power house for the Dalles Dam.

My father has been dead for nearly thirty years, and now I'm an engineer, only I do computer software for microprocessors. It's a field which didn't exist when my dad was alive. The first microprocessor came out shortly after he died.

I like to take the long view about things, and when trying to judge what is or is not important, it's useful to ask this question: "A hundred years from now, will this still be thought of as important?" If not, it's probably not really important now.

Which is why I don't take sports seriously anymore. I happen to really love baseball. I watch it on TV all the time when I can, and last year I attended my first game and enjoyed myself immensely. But I don't care who gets into the World Series (except it was nice to see John Rocker get his nose pushed in in 1999).

I followed the Sosa/McGwire home run duel in 1998 just as avidly as any other baseball fan. But in the grand scheme of things, it's really not important.

Let's take a particular year a long time ago: 1903. A lot of things happened that year, but let's pick two in particular: a baseball team won the first World Series, and someone made the first powered flight in a heavier than air vehicle.

I've been deliberately vague about who won the World Series and who made that flight because I want you to try a little experiment: Can you name the team which won? Can you name the person or persons who made that flight? (If you want to find out, follow the links.)

Everyone knows the answer to the second question, but I bet not one person in a hundred knows the former.

The second question: Which of those has made more of an impact on your life? Would your life be different if the other team had won the World Series? Would your life be different if no-one had invented the airplane?

I think this brings a bit of perspective.

Like it or not, engineers are doing things every day which will change your life.

Some people don't like it. I was sitting at a bar one night talking to a couple of guys I met there, and I told them I was an engineer. One of them popped up and said, "An engineer? You're scum." He'd been drinking quite a bit, but he realized he'd gone over the mark, and then he grinned and said "I'm just trying to pull your chain."

But that got me to thinking, because I later tried to explain to them how cell phones work, and he was totally, completely lost.

He knows that I'm changing his life, and he feels out of control. I think his first reaction was genuine. He's so far behind that he doesn't even know what questions to ask, and he's not going to be catching up.

To a much lesser extent than lawyers, engineers get something of a bad rap. As mentioned, I grew up in the 1960's, during the legendary space race, and upon thinking about it later, I realized something about how the media use the words "scientist" and "engineer".

When something is good and noble and praiseworthy, the media referred to the people doing it as "scientists". When it was grubby or disreputable, they were "engineers". I noticed this in particular after the Apollo disaster which cost three astronauts their lives. Before that, it seemed like everyone working on Apollo was a "scientist". After that we started hearing about engineers.

Which is, of course, a crock. Let me take a stab at defining the difference:

A scientist is a persion who is attempting to collect information about the real world.

An engineer is a person who is attempting to do something useful with the knowledge of science.

Note that "useful" is in the eye of the beholder -- some people think that napalm is useful.

The point is that Apollo, indeed the entire space program, is the work of engineers. Engineers often serve science by creating the instruments that scientists need, but it's still engineering, not science.

If you live in an industrialized society, nearly everything you do required an engineer somewhere. The clothes you wear were made in a factory by complex machines which were designed by an engineer. They were transported on ships, trains, planes and trucks -- all of which were designed by engineers. Your phone, your TV, the water you drink, the food you eat; all of that involves engineering.

Engineers matter. And I think that down deep people know it. I don't get negative reactions from people such as the one I got from that guy in the bar very often. Mostly people are respectful.

One of the privileges given to some of us is to do something for the very first time, to experience something no human has ever experienced before. People climb a mountain "because it's there". Well, when they've done so, they become a footnote in history but like sports what they do ultimately doesn't make a difference. But when engineers do something new, it changes all our lives. Consider how much difference the invention of the transistor or laser has made.

But the biggest reason I feel privileged to be an engineer is because we're opening up new possibilities for a better life. Most people have heard of Stephen Hawking, the legendary physicist, and possessor of possibly the most imaginative mind since Einstein. Most people also know that he is horribly crippled. He suffers from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis ("Lou Gehrig's Disease") and it's amazing he's lived as long as he has; he's well beyond the median age of survival. Technology has helped that. But technology has done something even more important. His handicap long ago took from him the power of speech.

Had that happened a hundred years ago, he could have thought all the wonderful things he wanted but they would have been locked inside the prison of his body and no-one else would ever have known. But he lives now, and he can talk -- with the aid of a machine. He has a portable computer controlled by a couple of simple switches and using it he can compose text, which can either be saved and published (how he writes his books) or can be turned into an audible voice using a voice synthesis package on that computer.

What's amazing is that nearly everything he's using is off-the-shelf. The only thing which is custom is the software he's using. And all of it came from the efforts of a hundred thousand engineers. Most of them weren't working specifically to help him, but the fallout of their work was immensely useful to him, and to thousands of other people who are equally crippled. In our time for the very first time the possibility exists to free people trapped inside their own bodies, because of engineering. And I helped; I used to work on equipment for fabrication of semiconductors. It's quite possible that some of the electronics in Stephen Hawking's computer was made using equipment I helped to create and manufacture.

I knew a woman once whose step mother was a quadraplegic, due to having broken her neck. She had no feeling in her body, and couldn't move it. But she's free to travel as she wills -- in cyberspace. She has a computer which has speech-recognition software, and using it she browses the web, participates in chatrooms, and transacts email. While in cyberspace she's free of her body. She lives again, and without this she'd be lonely, frightened and bored. And in her case everything she's using is off-the-shelf. None of what she's using is custom. Anyone in a similar circumstance could put together a computer with the same capabilities for less than $1500.

For her, that computer is a miracle. It would be cheap if it cost ten times as much -- but it doesn't. We live in an era of cheap, readily available miracles. And most of that is because of the efforts of a million faceless engineers. I'm one of them, and I'm proud of what we've done.

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