Rare is the book that puts words to something you have always known, but never named. Designed to give an overview of a vast and sprawling field, McCarthy’s short guide to engineering is apparently capable of a far smaller and more intimate feat – convincing me that I am, without even knowing it, an engineer.
While this sudden redefinition of my identity is startling, it does not signal my intent to change fields. Rather, it is simply a symptom of McCarthy’s masterful attempt to re-educate the general population about what it is that truly makes an engineer. Gone are the images of the eccentric misfit, with his elaborate designs for toast-buttering alarm clocks. Instead, it is now clear to me, and any reader of this thought-provoking book, that the discipline and its practitioners have shaped and improved nearly every facet of our everyday lives. This has long been the case and will continue as such for as long there are problems to solve.
So how did this unassuming orange tome get inside my head and get me spouting such profoundly nonsensical wisdom?
McCarthy’s preface (yes, I even read the preface) clearly sketches the framework of her book’s purpose: to inspire and to educate. For the professional, apprentice and aspiring engineers, the goal was to re-awaken or ignite a sense of wonder at the scope and influence of the field. For the non-engineer, Ferris wheel enthusiast or bored medic, this book was meant to lift the humble engineer out of the shadow cast by the artists and scientists, and give him the recognition we all owe him.
Of course, that was the intent that she explicitly wove into prose. The unwritten intent, that I firmly believe is hinted at throughout the book, is to give some sort of formal definition to a word that we all take for granted but very few of us understand.
Engineering is like the sky. Yes, we all know what it is – it’s the sky. Look at it, it’s right there in the light of the blindingly obvious sun. But if we break it down, it becomes very difficult to define. If it’s the atmosphere, why do we not call it the sky at ground level? If it’s the atmosphere above a certain altitude, what marks the border between sky and non-sky? Is it just the blue thing we see when we look up? What if the colour changes, or if it goes all black? Is the sky still the sky at night..?
The approach McCarthy takes is to compare engineering to those allied fields with which it is most often confused. It’s not purely science because it involves design and the practical implementation of that design. It’s not purely design because it involves the application of science and nature’s rules. In fact, the author takes the bravely nuanced position that engineering is a point on a spectrum of surrounding disciplines. Then she extends that idea to posit that the point is actually a web of smaller points, with spectra in between them too.
But, as she acknowledges, engineering is more than a field of study and work. It’s a profession, a thing that people do, belong to and get paid for. It’s a group of people with a set of skills that are employed through a certain mindset. It’s a body with a code of ethics, a series of special interests that are shaped by society whilst also shaping it. McCarthy handles all of these facets by exploring each of the relationships engineering has engendered with the concepts and people around it. And she does so masterfully, wasting neither word nor page.
Part of the beauty of McCarthy’s attempt to define engineering is the refreshingly stripped-back, straightforward language she employs. She makes no attempt to bamboozle you with complicated metaphors or analogies. Nor does she take shelter behind a wall of very long words with impressively Latin-looking roots. Instead, she explains everything from the basics and builds her points from the ground up, taking us with her to the summit of her argument. This makes her ideas extremely accessible to most readers, regardless of their background.
Natasha McCarthy’s book contextualises and defines the field, discipline and concept of engineering in a way that is both engaging and highly palatable for those with little or no related knowledge. I personally found myself engrossed by her real world examples, both contemporary and historical, as they add a dimension of realism which is in keeping with her vision of engineering.
I would thoroughly recommend this book to any students interested in engineering as a career. The clear explanations and the explorations of engineering’s role within society make it a valuable resource in the decision of whether this path is the right one for you. For those who are already committed to engineering, this book would be a very useful addition to your preparation for university interviews or justifying your choice to any skeptical parents!
All in all, this is a book I very much enjoyed reading and one I will remember, if only for inspiring the fundamental shift in the way I view engineers.