Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Let's reverse engineer engineering…

Michelle Dickinson is NanoGirl. She is a scientist and educator who has done wonders to promote an interest in the sciences in New Zealand and probably to a wider audience. She is young, attractive and more than willing to front for the cameras. She loves what she is doing and it shows. Recently she protested a New Zealand engineering firm's practice of objectifying women in their promotions in an irrelevant and sexist way. She was prompted to confront the issue by female students in her courses at the School of Engineering and is concerned that the imagery characterised an industry that discourages active participation by women in engineering.

As a result of Nanogirl's campaign it begs the question about engineering as a term and how its application alters the perceptions of both young women and men when considering it as an educational pathway.

I wonder if part of the issue isn't about framing - or reframing?
Regardless of whether we are talking about males or females the term 'engineering' as it is widely understood implies using some kind of force on an object to change its nature. (Which of course it is).

When I was in high school I took engineering as a subject. It was the '77-79. What we studied, or rather practiced, was how to use tools to make things. It suited me because I only had two interests in life at the time - mucking about with old British bikes and art (which involved a lot of drawings of old British bikes…and hot rods). That was engineering. Machines. When I left school I worked in a factory. Ultimately I was a die setter and studied for a NZCE (plastics). Still, engineering was about machining and making shit. Mostly it was dirty and noisy and sometimes dangerous. (In that era safety was a fingers-crossed matter - if you had some left).

Today my daughter takes 'tech' subjects - hard-tech/soft-tech (which I would have called home ec' back in the day). This is a good thing as it refers to the change in how things are made and understood. I don't think enough emphasis is placed on learning to code - or implement solutions to ideas/hypothesis - but that is another story for another time. The issue is that the blanket term 'tech' makes it all but meaningless - even if, like 'engineering', it is correct - as if it is a catch-all to mean not math, english etc.

I wonder if, to attract more people - and have an accurate representation of the population - to engineering there needs to be a movement to reverse-engineer the term. Take nanotech for example. Richard Feynman gave it a false start, implying it was a mind game for scientists, and it can be mind-boggling (just the other day I woke up in the night wondering if there is an 'up' or 'down' at an atomic level and if so how does gravity act on particles?…and what could that mean?).

What does engineering mean? It sounds like a platitude - is it about making the world better? (Not sure how mucking about with old bikes fits in there).

There are levels of engineering; from being the conceptualiser to being the riveter. The old world qualities of being able to manipulate 'heavy' things still rings out. Alongside Feynman I place Brunel 'up there' in the heroic process of bending nature to the human will.

The impression of what an engineer 'is' is rests substantially on Brunel as an archetype - he utterly changed how humans travel and trade. His innovations in ship building, port construction, railways and tunnelling made the world, for better or worse, what it is today. He was a colossus of innovation and the will to make things happen. He paved the way for modern capitalism (once again - for better or worse) with the systems that created the wealth that America tapped from vast, widely spread natural resources - without railroads there would have been no railroad barons. Western parts of the US would probably have been a different country, with different colonial rulers. Banking, arising from the trade would not have evolved as it has (once again, I'm conflicted). Intercontinental transport would have been slower - heck, New Zealand would be less significant than it already is if propellor driven ships that Brunel helped to perfect hadn't allowed refrigerated meat to be transported to Europe. Not everything Brunel proposed worked. He wanted to build a train-like system using a vacuum pipe to propel pods between cities - which sounds a lot like steampunk version Elon Musk's Hyperloop.

So in parallel with the great innovations of Brunel came the psychology of the man forcing his way into the future and blasting aside barriers - whether access to capital or the rocks in a mountainside to make way for a tunnel or bridge. It corresponded with ideas of rugged individualism (pathologically portrayed to the extreme by Ayn Rand in her bizarre philosophy set out in books like  The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged). It is a macho, confrontational vision of the future - fertilised in the soil of industrialism and colonialism.

These attitudes and impressions persist today - though the issues that engineering confronts seem characterised by repairing or mitigating the problems created by the thrusting macho world created by Brunel's Victorian ideals.

Engineers are challenged to do more with less - whether is developing stronger, lighter structural solutions to conserve materials and produce less waste or to explore solutions on a nano scale that delicately deliver a hammer blow to a problem. It's almost a remedial approach to development. We can't un-ring the bell of technology or un-see the demons set loose by opening Pandoras Box but we can refocus and reframe.

The qualities of an engineer might well be better described as 'feminine' - nurturing, preserving and growing - applied by men and women alike. We can't continue to batter our way into the future - because, as even I, with the most rudimentary understanding of Newtonian physics, know that every force has an equal and opposite. Harnessing yin and yang should be present in our thoughts as we engineer the future - and the practice of science, technology and engineering will benefit from the skilled, educated participation of both men and women - because it is so important we can't continue to eliminate half of our intellectual capacity as we have.


Richard Feynman's lecture on nanotech - where he mocks nanotech but which has been adopted - just as I am doing to promote the very thing. He's fantastic. This talk was delivered on my birthday before I was born - and you thought nanotech was mind-bending.

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