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Engineering Everything

Dan was old. Must have been 70, it seemed to the 22 year old me. Grizzled and garrulous, Dan was a chemical engineer who made a bundle designing a plant in Ankura, Turkey. He had retired onto a 35' aluminum sailboat and held court in his cabin over beers many an evening. He became a good friend.

Turns out, Dan was 39 at the time. Ah, youth, thy eye sees vast age in any face tarnished by the ravages of just a few years!

Sailboats, especially the ancient one I had at the time, have all kinds of problems. Gear is constantly failing, water comes in from below and above, and one is always modifying something on the vessel.

Many a time we'd talk about a specific problem one of us faced. Dan's response was always that of an engineer, first, sailor, second. "Sure, the clevis pin failed. You could replace it, I guess. But the more interesting issue is did it fail? What can you change so that never happens again?"

He had a rouges' gallery of broken components that he'd pull out and demonstrate. "Chafe. Even a half-inch bronze shackle will wear away if not protected. How do you think the Colorado River formed the Grand Canyon?"

Dan taught me a lot about long distance sailing. But there's one lesson he imparted that, almost forty years later, still shapes the way I think about most things: approach every problem and issue with an engineering perspective. Yes, I'm an EE, but that does not limit me to pushing electrons around. In school we studied statics and dynamics, which I never use in my work. But understanding loads and how things move has helped solve innumerable problems around the boat, the house, and pretty much everywhere else.

We took a big tree down last month. It was leaning towards an obstruction, so had to be felled "uphill." A little trig, some analysis, and in a few minutes we had rigged a nylon line between it and another hickory with a come-along putting great tension on the rather elastic nylon. Then we hung 150 pounds of water jugs from the middle of the line using a chain hoist. The load is proportional to the tangent of the angle of the line, so as the tree starts to fall is huge.

The tree came down within inches of plan. Even in logging our engineering sense and intuition comes into play.

A friend - and an engineer - has a damp basement, though there's no standing water. He didn't shop for a dehumidifier blindly. Instead he computed how much water the air in that space could hold at its usual temperature and relative humidity, and picked a unit that could remove more than that in 24 hours. Analysis leads to insight.

When the scoundrels in DC make some promise, we engineers need to hold their numbers up to scrutiny. $1T for that fighter program? Amortized over how many units? How does that compare to, say, F-16s. or a few million drones?"

Alas, it seems too many Americans don't know the difference between a million and a billion, and the notion of 10**12 completely evades them. We need to educate them at the party when some bore completely confuses M, B and T.

I have learned, though, to try (though it's so hard!) to be less analytical in relationships. Sometimes my wife has a problem, but needs a sympathetic ear, not a calculator, #2 Ticonderoga, and graph paper.

I don't know if engineers are born or made. But there's no doubt that the engineering mindset reshapes our lives, much more so than most professions.

Published September 5, 2012