These days, I can proudly and gratefully call myself a Royal Academy of Engineering Research Fellow. As well as being an honour and an achievement, it means the Academy pays for my work AND my trips abroad, and occasionally organises really good events with top-class catering.
In mid-October I went to a conference they set up, called “Putting the E word into engagement”. Set in their newly renovated premises at 3 Carlton House Terrace, SW1, (which reminds me – I need to tell you about that building some time) the conference was attended by scientists, engineers, educators, the media and representatives of various funding bodies.
The theme of the conference was (broadly speaking) “what can we do to make engineers engage with the public more, better, and in a way that works in the long run?”
Firstly, I am surprised that we need to have this sort of conversation. Looking out the window of the meeting room you can see the Shard, London Eye, and the Tower of the Houses of Parliament with a giant four-faced clock inside! After the conference I walked over a bridge across the Thames, took a train to go to my house which is heated without smoke, watched television and went online. Had it not been for engineering I would have been in my pants, sheltering from the wind between two large rocks! No, wait, no pants either!
There should be tremendous interest in engineering, right? You cannot doubt its importance, but because it’s everywhere, it gets taken for granted a lot. As one speaker put it: because it’s pervasive it’s invisible. Which is a shame, and dangerous!
Prof Mark Miodownik from UCL presented the keynote speech. There’s no denying that the man can talk, and in his flowery shirt he was adorable. A minor point he made was that the Romans had the knowledge of making concrete, but it was lost in what we call the dark ages only to be rediscovered hundreds of years later. That seems like a bad technology to forget how to use.
Mark made a few points which got me thinking that we’re in a delicate situation in engineering. Young people these days don’t tinker anywhere near as much as is healthy. It’s all well and good to be able to write apps and design websites, but these things still run on hardware (in the old-fashioned sense) which had to be dreamt up and then fabricated to exist in the real world. These days gadgets are so complex that even looking inside them won’t tell you much about their working, and it’s very likely that whole generations will grow up assuming that phones and cars just are in the world, the way rocks just are in the world. (Rocks existing in the first place is a fascinating subject, but let’s not go into it here.)
Digital technology is brilliant for its ease of use, but dangerous for a complacent and apathetic society. In a few generations a society can lose valuable skills in making things and solving problems, much like the (temporarily) lost art of making concrete: many steps back and bad times for all.
Engineering gave human society a chance to look up from the berry bush and antelope carcass, and freed up people’s time to do what they enjoyed. Some became musicians, fashion designers, fitness trainers and stargazers. The plough was the invention that first did it. It wasn’t called engineering back then, but that’s what it was.
The digital age shouldn’t make us complacent and uninterested in how things in the real world work, because if you forget how to build a plough, you’ll be out of luck when reaching for your next scone.
This post originally appeared on the University of Surrey’s The Green Room blog.