Engineering is a Good Life Unspoken expectations are usually the most powerful ones. My dad, a helicopter engineer of some renown in the early days of Silicon Valley, before anyone knew what a helicopter was, (and long before anyone knew what silicon was), never told me, “You have to be an engineer.” It was merely implied by word and deed that there was no other career path in existence. From the age of, oh, probably three, I understood that engineering was what people did when they grew up. I never questioned the proposition. My older brother became an aeronautical engineer, too, achieving a modicum of fame himself for helping design the Space Shuttle. I was a bit of a black sheep, veering from the aviation/aerospace path to a life of electrons and radio. But an engineer nevertheless. A lot of people in my position will tell you that engineering provides a good living, and I have to admit that it’s served me well in that regard, even if I average in a period in my career when I was involved in radio science and basic research, a world where many physicists and engineers take a de-facto vow of poverty. Far more than providing a good living, engineering provides a good life. Engineers are the most optimistic people on the planet, regardless of whatever the contemporary economy might be. Here are a few reasons why. 1) Engineering is fun. You get to do weird and wonderful thing with weird materials. If you’re a chemical engineer, you get to play with magical potions of every kind. You can do alchemy and actually get paid for it. If you’re an aeronautical engineer, you get to make things that fly in the air and into outer space. If you’re a radio engineer, you get to play with this strange substance called ether, which, we all know actually exists, despite decades of protestations to the contrary. We can wobble a few electrons in a wire here, and know that our electron-wobblings can be detected halfway across the solar system in another electron-wobbling wire. If you’re a physicist, you get to fling particles at near the speed of light through a tube like the Stanford Linear Accelerator, and create (or destroy) new matter. For the most part, real engineering is play. 2) Engineering is apolitical. The world of the engineer is an oasis of order and stability in a desert of chaos. Ohm’s Law and Maxwell’s Equations will always be in force regardless of what other insane laws our political legislators might concoct. I can look at an electronic schematic drafted by an Arab, an Indian, a Chinese, a Russian, or an African, and understand it PERFECTLY…right off the bat, not knowing a single word in any of those folks’ languages. (The English have a few weird symbols, but I’ve even learned to understand them). 3) The engineer understands that problems can be solved. In fact, problems that need to be solved are the engineer’s lifeblood. Engineering problems have a beginning, a middle, and an end. In school, we practice engineering by doing problems…problems that actually have correct answers. Compare this to those poor S.O.B.s in politics, sociology, psychology, or any of the humanities. They have no final answers to their problems, and they know it. 4) The engineer gets small glimpses into the Mind of God. These are subtle, surprising, and sometimes hilarious. The Universe is staggeringly consistent; the fact that we can use this one thing called mathematics to study any scientific discipline from chemistry to acoustics is the best evidence of a single, consistent mastermind behind it all. And yet, it’s not too obvious. Numbers like Euler’s number and Pi seem to be some kind of cosmic pun. The Mandelbrot set, despite being the result of “random” numbers, always comes out looking like the Mandelbrot set. And then there’s the actual physical world. Water itself is weird. Now this brings up the question as to whether you have to be born into the engineer’s life, or if you can move up into it from some inferior station. Admittedly, being born into an engineering family gives you some kind of head start, but all is not hopeless if you happen to be the progeny of a politician, or worse. Engineering is something that can be learned. It’s not the easiest road, but it’s well worth the journey.