Monday, August 22, 2011

Engineers in Pop Culture

Cross posted at Scientopia

Being an engineer, I'm always excited by realistic engineers in pop culture. Unlike doctors, lawyers and paper salesmen, rather few sitcoms include engineers as a major character, let alone considering an engineering firm as a setting. The first thing that comes to most people's minds when you mention engineers is, somewhat unfortunately, Dilbert. While there are certain truths about the corporate world that come through, most engineers I know don't have Dilbert-type jobs. I'm not saying that Dilbert isn't funny, but I think it is a very narrow picture of what engineering really entails. Still, I've heard perfectly brilliant friends say "I don't want to go into engineering. I don't want to be Dilbert!".

Sci-fi is the major home of engineers, with Star Trek of course having an entire engineering department who get to do exciting things and save the day by crawling through the Jeffries tubes. However, sci-fi readers tend to be a bit more engineering-minded to start with, so it's not really reaching an audience that is as generally unaware of what engineers do.

So what about outside of sci-fi?

One of the better examples I've run into recently, oddly, is from a fantasy book about magical horses. Storm Warning, by Mercedes Lackey, has a group of engineers and mathematicians helping identify patterns in a series of magical disturbances to predict the next storm, and translating engineering concepts, like harbor breakwaters, to this new situation. Another favorite example is from the Kingkiller Chronicles, by Patrick Rothfuss. Yes, they're called artificers, but it's a similar concept. It's a high fantasy adventure, but it takes an honest look at some of the realities of being a design engineer. My favorite moment from the first two books is the sequence designing a magical arrow catcher, which while it operates partly by magic, still relies on physics to function.

There's also MacGyver, and if they would admit that what they do is really engineering, the Mythbusters. In fact, you were to ask people to give an example of a famous engineer (who is a real person), Grant Imahara would be pretty high on the list. I think Grant is a fantastic example of the non-Dilbertian side of engineering, plus he's considered one of the Bay area's most eligible bachelors.

Does anyone have good examples of real or realistic engineers in pop culture/fiction?

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