It’s true. I’m opinionated, cantankerous, and maybe smarter than you might think if you observed me puzzling over sprinkler fittings in the local Lowes Store. I’ve done my stint at photographing Russian satellites, sailing, making paints and coatings, exploring the wonders of small molecules back in the days when you polished optical plates made of table salt in order to see how the oxygen atom was vibrating with respect to a carbon atom. I pioneered the use of lasers to see how atoms vibrated in molecular frameworks, and I’ve also rebuilt carburetors to get an extra bit of horsepower to win a street drag race. So, don’t mess with me because I’m prepared to admit there’s still a lot I don’t know.
I was visiting with a group of physicists and, over pots of strong black coffee, we had serious discussions that covered subjects as disparate as the ethics of weapons development and quilting as an art, not a hobby. Of course, we also discussed certain equations describing non-Euclidean spaces, too. But the point was, we exercised our collective brain. We even discussed the chances of the Dallas Cowboys winning the Superbowl. I, being a New Orleans Saints fan, distanced myself from the speculation.
More recently I was listening in to a bunch of engineering types and was expecting to hear at least some topic of discussion beyond the American hockey team’s chances in the Olympics. Well, I was disappointed in that expectation. The whole rather brainless performance made me angry.
Here is what I think. We pamper, protect, and trust engineers entirely too much. We often pay them too much and most often expect way too little in return for our trust and treasure. We neither demand nor expect engineers to be full human beings. We don’t find them participating to any degree in service groups, and we don’t see them at fund raisers unless their spouses dress them and drag them along. We often find them dull and uncommunicative, especially when it comes time to clearly describe what might go wrong. We notice a tendency to invent everything each time around instead of valuing and studying the experience of others. We find them full of excuses and often underinsured when it comes time to take the responsibility for mistakes. They seem to take great delight in avoiding people skills in situations where normal, run of the mill, intelligent human beings figure out how to get things done in a timely and cooperative manner.
Of course I have a few engineering friends that are more like my loquacious scientific friends, and I value their friendship and existence very highly. And I’ve listened to ridiculous chats between scientists who obviously hadn’t made it out of their laboratories in far too long. But in general, I find the average chatter in front of the coffee bar at the supermarket filled with more thoughtful analysis of daily life than in the lofty confederation of engineering types after a day’s discussion of esoteric widget technology.
Don’t get me wrong, I can enjoy digging deep into the strata of esoteric widget formations and find fascinating evolutionary forms. I just expect, when the day’s tech talk has been relegated to the back burner, that sometimes the state of global warming or the price of corn oil with respect to potatoes might come up. I might expect an intelligent discussion of how the goals and objectives of Martian exploration might possibly benefit children dying of dysentery.
I’m reminded of the time in the spring of 2006 when an engineering friend of mine was surprised to notice the cost of gas while he was boasting about the energy efficiency of his SUV. “My car gets fourteen miles to the gallon,” he rhapsodized while letting the pump drip precious gasoline on the concrete. Umm, I thought, my 1990 Olds got 28 around town and 32 on the highway. Where have you been for the last twenty years?