Engineering Is Not What You Think It Is

Or maybe, it is. I mean, I don’t know you personally, and perhaps you have the same concept of engineering, as a profession, as I do. Or maybe you’re thinking about train engineers, which are something else completely, and not ‘engineering’ in the conventional sense. Though let’s face it, train engineers can be pretty cool, like in that movie, Unstoppable, which I saw on a recent flight to somewhere or other, and it was really quite amazing. Specially, the point in the movie where there’s this really sharp curve, which of course is right in the center of some city, Scranton I think, and right below the raised tracks on this sharp curve there’s a refinery, because that’s just where you want to locate a refinery, full of extremely flammable and toxic substances, in the center of a small city and just below a raised curved section of railroad track. I believe there’s some sort of zoning issue that requires it. And right next to that, as I related to Mary later, because I felt the filmmakers left a couple of cliché’s sitting on the cutting room floor, was an orphanage. She added the hospital, no, a puppy hospital, because well, you have to get the passions of the audience inflamed, and what better than a hospital full of puppies in peril?

Well, the train didn’t go off the rails and Scranton was saved, and as a matter of fact the train never derails, no matter how hard they try, which is as silly as the puppy hospital Mary put into the movie. Because it seems trains jump off the tracks if you put on a penny on them or something, since there’s a train derailing somewhere in this country apparently every hour or so. On the other hand the engineer in the movie was played by Denzel Washington and he’s much cooler than any mechanical or structural engineer I’ve ever seen in a movie.

So I guess I should go back to addressing my original point, and I did have a point of course, and that’s that engineering, as a profession, does not actually prepare one to repair any of the one hundred thousand and one things that can go wrong in the modern house. Especially the more esoteric specialties in engineering, like mine – metallurgy. I know exactly what elements you have to combine with iron, and how to heat and cool the resulting alloy, to make the perfect wall bracket for hanging that planter. It doesn’t mean however, that I have the slightest ability or skill set to actually make the bracket. Nor unfortunately does it mean that I can hang the wall bracket on the wall at an angle that anywhere approaches verticality. Well, that might be unfair – it does approach verticality (I like using this word now that I’ve made it up), but like an asymptotic curve, will never quite get there, ever.

This inability to reach perfection is, of course, anathema to your average engineer, at least the ones who don’t run trains. We love us our calculations and designs where the tolerances are fractions of a thousandth of an inch and the answer is expressed out to seventeen significant figures. Don’t bother asking for an explanation, cause we don’t do explanations – we’re engineers.

In any case, if you marry an engineer with any expectation that he can actually hang a wall bracket correctly or install a set of shelves with even a pretense of levelness, then you’re going to be sorely disappointed. Ask my wife. I keep trying and trying, but much like that dude who was looking for an honest man, I never succeed. Actually the honest man search has a higher probability of success than I will ever have of figuring why the pilot light on the hot water won’t stay lit. My advice to all you future wives of engineers is get a really good contact list of handymen, repair guys and jacks-of-all-trades. If you need one, contact Mary, she has a great list.

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