All That Is Needed

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An engineer I know told me that he is concerned about his daughter. She is showing signs of becoming an engineer when she grows up. This one line of reasoning made it clear that she is a good candidate for engineering school.

She came home from school one day recently and asked,”Why do we need English? Math and science is all we really need.”

Out of the mouths of children can come such wisdom – and cause her parents not a little amount of concern.

Why English indeed?

You Might Be an Engineer If…

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– you admire Spock, from Star Trek, but still consider him way too emotional.



Another number that screams “Go Metric!” is 26.2. Yes, this is the distance in miles of a marathon. Stickers with only this number on them seem to have proliferated on the backs of cars lately. I am guessing that the drivers of these cars have either driven a marathon course, or watched a marathon on TV.

What is interesting about the 26.2 is that is is rounded off number. The exact number is 26 miles, 385 yards. This is 26.21875 miles, which technically should be on those stickers. But, while one may think that this odd number is because it is a conversion from metric, it is not. The metric distance is 42.195 kilometers.

So, why is the distance of a marathon not an even number in either measurement system? It has to do with some strange story in history which I will not relate here. But I will say that this demonstrates clearly the need for a sensible standard measurement system. No, not the English system. The metric system.


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This concept is used in many equations engineers love – it is the rate of change. The rate of change, the change in a value y per change in a value x. That almost makes me giddy just writing that.

dy/dx is used so frequently and is so powerful in engineering applications, from falling objects, to increasing pressure with depth in a liquid, to electrical applications, flow, strength of materials, and the list goes on.

To make things even more fantabulous, engineers will frequently evaluate rate of change of rate of change. Woah! What-what?

Think about measuring an object moving – falling or rolling – in one direction. We can measure that rate of change of position in terms of dy/dx, or change in distance over change in time. This is velocity, speed if it is in one direction. But what if the velocity changes? Then we measure the change in velocity over time, or in other words, the change in distance over time over time, or something like that. It makes more sense in an equation. This is acceleration. What happens if we measure the change in acceleration? Well, we may just be going back in time. No. I am kidding.

But rate of change is powerful, and engineers use it frequently. An engineer could even use it to measure non-engineering things, like the rate of change in time for, say, his wife to get ready to leave for the evening, with change in the years of marriage. We may save that one for another day. But it can be done.

Engineering Sports

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One of the most fascinating thing about sports, from the engineering perspective, is that it produces, and can be broken down into statistics. Numbers, relationships between numbers,  correlations between different factors that influence the game. Forget about the emotion, as any engineer will tell you to do anyway. Sports is about numbers and analysis.

One interesting book about this approach to sports is Moneyball. But, if one wants even more statistics, more numbers, more analysis for a wide variety of sports, pick up a copy of a relatively new book, Scorecasting, by Tobias Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim.

I am only part way through it, and I am here to report, it is fascinating. They analyze so many facets of sports and it is all done through numbers. There are no emotional heart tugs, no tears of victory or defeat. Just cold hard facts. The way an engineer would like it.

The really neat thing about this book is that they keep away from simple anecdotal analysis. Although they tell individual stories, they put them in perspective of analysis of numbers – a lot of numbers. The authors analyze millions of points of data, numerous times. For example, will an umpire behind the plate in baseball expand the strike zone if the count is 3-0, or shrink it if the count is 0-2? Analyze millions of pitches over the past 5 or 10 years and find out. What causes home field advantage? You may not want to know, but statistical analysis gives an answer.

It is not a love story (thank goodness). It is not a feel-good tear-jerker. It is not a sweet tale of an underdog who defeats all odds to win. It is better than all these. It is statistical analysis of sports, the way an engineer would like to see it.

Important Announcement!

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It’s Engineers Week.

It is time to honor engineers and all they do for society, and for those who were not aware of it, February 17-23 is the week to do this. If you haven’t taken time for it yet, you may wish to get the conversation going at the dinner table. Conversations could include, but are not limited to: your favorite engineers, the best engineering masterpieces, aspects of life that engineers make easier, and planning a thank you note card-writing campaign to engineers in your city or town.

However, I have not told you the best news about Engineers Week, 2013. It is the theme. This theme says it all. It is:

“Celebrate Awesome”

‘Nuff said, my friend. ‘Nuff said.

You Might Be an Engineer If…

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– you have been told that the only time you raise your voice is when it involves communicating the results of an equation that “proves” how correct you are. (Because that is the only time it makes sense to.)

A Football Field

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This number, or measurement, isn’t necessarily important to an engineer, but it shows what engineers have known for some time: our country needs a uniform, commonly accepted standard of measurement. Otherwise…

Last week, a cruise ship was stranded while out on the high seas. (For five days, people had to live like millions of people in less developed countries live every day of their lives. But here is not the place for commentary.) During the way overdone news coverage, a reporter would say, “The ship is two and a half football fields long.”

At the same time, an asteroid nearly missed hitting our planet. The asteroid, as reporters told us was “a half a football field wide.”

Since when did a football field become a standard unit of measure? Sure, it is a well-understood length to many Americans. It is not completely uniform in its cultural understanding since there are some who simply don’t like or follow sports, but for the most part, people can somewhat relate. The issue at hand is that the football field is in yards. Now, if it was in meters, then it would all make sense.

I would suggest this change in the next owners meeting, however, I am not an owner.  But if we could get football to go metric, then it would be more likely that people would understand it when the next pope’s hat is described at being one hundred and twentieth of a football field high.

Running Numbers on the Elevator


For an engineer, running calculations and numbers in your head is an occurrence of frequent timing. It is not our fault. The world is constantly presenting us with situations for number crunching, usually to be more efficient, make sure we are on time, or be content that the building won’t collapse.

Case in point – the elevator. I got on an elevator the other day and saw posted a sign that is visible in various forms on most elevators: Weight Limit 4000 lbs.

Am I safe in here? What if I am in here and a number of heavy people get on at the next floor before I have a chance to exit? So, my mind starts going: If heavy people, let’s say 250 pounds each, get on the elevator:

4000/250 = 16, so it would take 16 people each weighing, or averaging, 250 pounds to max out the elevator capacity. Though unlikely, can they even fit?

I estimated the elevator to be about 6 ft by 7 ft, or 42 square feet. This means each person would need to fit with:

42/16 = 2.625 square feet, or in a square with a side of 1.62 feet. That is 19.44 inches. This would be an extremely tight fit. I think my shoulders are about this width, and I thought about the stagger and organization of the squares. Fitting 16 people of that size in here would be difficult, not to mention the low odds of that many people of that size showing up at the same time. But not impossible.

I convinced myself that not only is the chance of that many big people wanting to enter at the same time very low, but, and here is the real comforting thought, they always throw in a good factor of safety on these things. Without looking this up on the internet, I was at ease riding the elevator. Until that delivery guy wheeled into the elevator a flatbed containing numerous boxes that may well be holding lead plates or gold bars, elements with very high specific gravities.

The calculations begin all over again…

More Engineering Fun

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We have discussed the concrete canoe competitions that engineering students around the United States have competed in for many years now.

If that wasn’t enough to show the fun side of engineers, we take a look north, to Canada, where they recently held the 39th annual concrete toboggan races. Numerous universities show up near Vancouver to take part in this competition. See the report here.

Observation #1: It is good engineers are, in general, smart, because they won’t make it as athletes.

Observation #2: Don’t get too excited about seeing entire toboggans made of concrete. It is only the runners that are made of concrete. But a lot of engineering goes into that (I think).

Observation #3: With a 26-page rules booklet, one can tell the competition has a heavy engineering influence.

The guy interviewed on the video said that there were 23 universities and 470 engineers. How could that not be fun!