Engineering in the Shadows
Why does media stardom elude our discipline?
By Henry Petroski
Bill Nye the Science Guy is an engineer, but that is not something easily deduced from the blurbs on the back cover of his latest book, Everything All at Once. There, Nye is compared to Carl Sagan and made to sound like a hard-nosed scientist and science educator.
But if we read the flap copy, we learn that Nye received a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Cornell and for years worked as a professional engineer at Boeing and other industrial firms. But Bill Nye the Engineering Guy does not have the zip to propel someone to media stardom.
“The Science Guy” moniker seems to suggest a personality that craves attention, something most engineers claim not to need. In his book, Nye even has a chapter explaining how he came to wear his signature bow tie, which he admits is to make him stand out from the crowd.
Nye has certainly earned the respect of the media, having won an Emmy Award for his eponymous television show and making a cameo appearance on The Big Bang Theory. And now, as CEO of the Planetary Society, which counts Sagan among its founders and whose mission is “empowering the world’s citizens to advance space science and exploration,” he marks himself even more the scientist.
Never mind that space science and exploration cannot advance without engineering, Nye has become so far removed from being associated with our discipline that who can be blamed for not knowing he is an engineer?
Scientists and engineers, by the very nature of their education and methods, can of course move freely from one field to the other, but the movement occurs largely along a one-way street. Scientists are hired as professors of engineering, chairs of engineering departments, and deans of schools of engineering, but off the top of my head I cannot think of one engineer who has been given the green light to go the other way.
Nye is thus a notable exception, and I would attribute his success as the Science Guy and CEO of the Planetary Society in part to his propensity for bow ties, signifying his willingness to stand out. (He did, after all, work as a standup comedian for a while.) Most engineers I know do not seek center stage, except maybe among like-minded colleagues within their narrow specialty.
Is it possible that engineers are discouraged from being as egotistical and arrogant as scientists? Do their teachers emphasize the importance of working in teams, to the virtual suppression of the individual ego? Such training is less likely to produce more than one or two Bill Nyes per generation. Overly self-confident scientists and their spokespersons, on the other hand, seem to be a dime a dozen.
Claiming to have the universe, from the smallest subatomic particle to the largest galaxy, as their oyster certainly must give scientists—especially physicists—a sense of entitlement, but engineers also have a range of interest and achievement that spans many orders of magnitude. There has to be something more to the disparity between public adulation of scientists and virtual ignorance of engineers.
Engineers with the personality and talent of a Bill Nye may tend to gravitate toward the sciences, but I know many scientists who have found much personal and career satisfaction in working as an engineer, whether or not holding that title or being called that. My experience is that their personalities are as low key as their achievements are high.
Surely we can find a happy medium between producing overly humble engineers and overly confident scientists. Teaching engineering should mean not only transmitting technical material but also conveying to students a sense of pride in their profession. Engineers should not be taught that engineering is a word to be shunned because it does not have the sound of science.
Henry Petroski is A. S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and professor of history at Duke. His latest book is The Road Taken: The History and Future of America’s Infrastructure.
Image Courtesy of Catherine Petroski