As the self-designated curator of the Elia-Loi library, I added Randall Munroe’s What If to our collection using the promotional credit I received from Amazon Prime Day. The full title is What If: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions. Awesome. Just the type of coffee-table book our nerdy home needs.
How I Came Across the Title
Doing graduate school in engineering warrants familiarity with comic strips such as PHD comics and xkcd. Randall Munroe is the creator of xkcd. One day, my labmate Ruth invited me to see Munroe’s talk during his Princeton visit. I didn’t remember much from the talk, but it was a fun night.
Munroe is a NASA engineer turned full-time comic artist. Last year he gave an entertaining TED talk, which you can watch below. Now, we’re a pair of nerds in my home, but Munroe is a nerd nerd (watch the video). And that’s cool.
I learned about his book from his interview with Colbert. Yes, I do get a lot of reading ideas from fake news shows…
Thoughts on the Book
Pure fun. It’s funny and nerdy—I love it! The first question he answers in the book is, What would happen if the Earth and all terrestrial objects suddenly stopped spinning, but the atmosphere retained its velocity? I read this chapter at the bookstore and I was pretty much hooked. Try reading it yourself at your local bookstore!
In another chapter, he shows the mathematical absurdity of thinking that everyone only has one soul mate. Of course, the book entertains with his comic drawings too.
I have a few science-related books on my list, but the one I am most looking forward to is Applied Minds: How Engineers Think, to be released in August.
In the women’s bathroom on my office floor, there are these paper towel dispensers that frustrate me on a regular basis.
They’re just the standard paper towel dispensers that you pull out folded white paper towels from the bottom. No sensor, no lever, just plain ol’ paper towel holders.
But these ones on my floor are loaded in such a way that when you try to pull one out, its edges often get caught in the corner. You then have to pull harder to get it out, at which point it would rip or you’d end up pulling more paper towels out than needed. If it’s ripped, the corners are stuck to the dispenser, causing the next paper towel to tear more easily.
Can I please just have a paper towel!!?!
It’s just paper towel, Josephine. Don’t sweat the small stuff, you may say.
True. But what frustrates me the most about this situation is the waste it generates. More paper towels are consumed as a result of this faulty process. Engineer + waste = cringe.
I think the reason is they’re loaded too fully, hence the weight of all the paper towels prevent the bottom one to dispense smoothly. I don’t know how the loading is done, but my guess is this ineffectiveness and inefficiency could be prevented by a simple testing step. Load the paper towels, then test the system by trying to pull out a paper towel. If it doesn’t work perfectly, fix it.
Maybe it is tested, but no one bothers to fix it? In any case, someone does not bother doing something.
Since I was encouraged yesterday by Tim Ferriss’ The 4-Hour Workweek to learn to propose solutions, I plan to talk to the janitorial staff (nicely, of course). I don’t know why I waited this long. Hopefully this will solve the paper towel problem for us who use the facility.
Do things well, and eliminate waste.
If I could freeze time, slice a moment out of my day, and take stock of the objects around me, I’d find that most everything has not escaped the touch of an engineer.
Freeze 11:22 AM. Docking station, monitor stand, phone, magnetic clips, headphone, 2 desks, filing cabinet, the wall, the floor, a pen. Freeze 7:49 PM. Curtains, dish soap, stove, Tupperware, plates. The electronics are obviously complex, but even the pens –the manufacturing of pens—were also engineered. The physics and geometry of a table may be straightforward, but what about its mass production, packaging, and distribution?
What fascinates me about the pervasiveness of engineering work is that it often is invisible. Most of the time, we don’t go around thinking about who designed the parking meter, how the city purifies water, or what system puts money to our bank account when we deposit checks using our smartphones? We simply expect that things just work.
Perhaps this is why engineers are not commonly perceived as humanitarian heroes. Except for Engineers Without Borders, few cases exist where engineers are heralded as life-saving champions like the doctors, the soldiers, the missionaries, the lawyers, the pilots, or the teachers. Instead, they’re more like supporting characters in a plot where these other professions act as heroes. Heroes help people, especially in moments of crises. The engineers? They just have to make sure that everything works.
The nature of engineering work, to me at least, is not so much to respond to crises, although this certainly is part of the job. The main role, however, is to make sure the daily operations work well. Engineers may get more spotlight when things fail, with some blame involved perhaps, but they’re not necessarily heroes for the thousand other times when things are actually working.
For a lot of engineers, this suits them just fine. After all, many would rather buckle down and solve problems rather than talking about them. But at the same time, I think engineers could take some credits in this ‘helping people’ business.
I work in the gas and oil refining industry. I’m in the business of making fuels. I don’t rescue or help people–in the humanitarian sense of the word–as a day job, but it sure ‘helps’ when my car moves when I press the pedal. I’m sure glad that putting gasoline means something to the car, and that heroes everywhere have means of transporting themselves to where they need to be. No matter how rough a day is, when I get into my car to drive home and see all the other cars on the road, I feel affirmed that my work contributes something, though small, to society.
To me, engineering is an enabler; it enables everyone to do their work, to live, and function efficiently every day, every moment. Our toilets work, our bridges stand, our buildings sound. Somebody thought these through. Engineers are in the business of mundane, everyday things that many take for granted (even flying planes are taken for granted). And I actually love this about my profession.
I get a kick out of working on something that people don’t realize may help them. I get a certain satisfaction from working behind the curtain, designing a system that works so well and intuitive no one thinks twice about how it works.
Being an engineer makes me appreciate things that simply work, because I know it’s not simple to make something work. Designers have to think about the thousand ways it could fail and build measures to avoid them.
Being an engineer makes me appreciate how things came to be. Everything that was made went through a process, and someone thought through that process.
Being an engineer teaches me that I’m part of a system, and that my work can impact everything and everyone down the line. It makes me want to work safely and with integrity, because mistakes can cost someone’s life.
Being an engineer gives me the joy of celebrating success as a team, since no single hero can emerge without a team.
So, to all the engineers out there, I appreciate you. Keep up the good work!
Photo credits: Johnny Loi Photography