This article emphasizes on the role engineering plays in the existence and working of any civilization. The power of engineering is that it provides the foundation for further advancements. That enables access to natural resources, the access increases the potential for human freedom and creativity, and that freedom allows for the creation of new engineering advances. The engineered contrivances are diverse—coming in many sizes and configurations, being as ancient as rope or as new as self-driving vehicles—and at first sight appear complicated, disorganized. Access to more power—that is, the ability to move across space, in opposition to the forces that oppose motion—due to the application of engines touched off an explosion in new contrivances. It is only when access to the fruits of engineering is severed, due to earthquakes and hurricanes or accidents and acts of despotism that most people become aware of the monumental role that engineering plays in our lives today. Today, biomedical engineers are working to improve and extend lives. They are part of an engineering tradition that extends for millennia.
Engineering is the great liberator. Until the advent of the Industrial Revolution, agriculture and industry were powered by animal and human muscle, generally under various degrees of coercion. Engineers can point to steam power as their contribution toward the end of slave labor.
The power of engineering is that it provides the foundation for further advancements. We enable access to natural resources, the access increases the potential for human freedom and creativity, and that freedom allows for the creation of new engineering advances.
I believe that most people not only do not know what engineering is, but also have no idea of its value. To me, it is simple: Without engineering, civilization does not exist.
But it isn’t enough to just make a statement. One has to make the case. And so, as an avowed advocate for the central role of engineering in society, I want to lay out my argument here, building from some simple observations.
First, nothing moves unless it is driven. That driving impetus can come from natural forces such as gravity or from food for animals and humans or from fuel for machines. Once a natural system begins to move, it continually evolves its configuration toward flowing more and more easily. A stream cuts its way through impeding rocks and, just as naturally, changes occur in organisms to make them more ergonomically efficient.
As systems evolve to become more efficient, they also become more complex and more hierarchical in how they flow and move. It turns out that joining and moving together requires less power than moving individually. This principle underlies any number of phenomena. It explains why river systems evolve into embroideries of small tributaries flowing into a major river and why flocks of birds and schools of fish move as one. The bigger stream, animal, and vehicle is a more efficient mover than the smaller, though also more complex, with hierarchy in its architecture.
What’s true of flocks and schools—that it is easier to move across the Earth as a member of a group than to move alone—is also true of people. A peloton moves more quickly than an individual cyclist. When exiting a crowded stadium or theater, it is much easier to step into the space vacated by the person in front of you than to elbow your way alone through a milling crowd. Conga lines through the impenetrable jungle are prefigurations of social organization.
As I explored in my recent book, The Physics of Life, the same physics is also behind the larger human social organization. The life movement of a population, what we commonly refer to as the economy, will become bigger and more complex and hierarchical over time. For instance, the amount of fuel consumed by a population is directly proportional to its gross domestic product, a measure of the wealth that population generates each year.
Physics and economics are two sides of the same coin. The same hierarchical flow architecture accounts for both. The hierarchy—many small tributaries flowing together with a few big rivers—exists because that’s how the whole live system evolves to thrive.
People have intuitively structured societies to make best use of this “social physics.” Over time, we have found that a society moves more, produces more, and lasts longer when it is endowed with freedom, hierarchy, and allowed to flow, as it were, in a free-questioning and self-correcting way. When human activity is projected on a global map, we can see the physical flow that carries all the human material and concerns, and this flow follows the same laws as rivers and the branching architecture of blood vessels. Activity from the far reaches flows together, running to large streams and then to the central pools of human creativity and productivity.
While it is true that good ideas can come from anywhere, creativity—the creation of new and innovative designs—does not occur uniformly across the earth. It concentrates hierarchically on the globe, as does movement and wealth and people who are free to question.
The Science of useful things
I have stated that engineering is a science of what is useful to human life and social organization. Engineering is the body of science that sustains the muscular activity that propels the world today.
The first branch of engineering that was widely recognized was what is now called civil engineering (the constructing of city living), even though most of that science was invented in antiquity and the middle ages for military purposes: the mechanics of roads, bridges, and ramparts, in addition to catapults, weapons, and military campaigns. The first engineering education was primarily military education, and we are reminded today by the École Polytechnique in Paris, founded in 1794 as the first engineering university in the world.
Other kinds of engineering emerged as natural add-ons, because of dramatic changes in the technology and availability of power. Mechanical engineering, for instance, was the new science of “machines,” driven by heating from burning fuels or the captured motion of water or wind. In addition to being used directly, mechanical power could also be converted into electrical power so that it could be tapped by users far from the source, and those myriad uses necessitated the development of electrical engineering.
Chemical and petroleum engineering became distinct disciplines at the turn of the 20th century, as the demand for explosives and new fuels in large quantities became dominant. Aeronautical engineering gained attention during the First World War, again because of the military importance of human flight. Nuclear engineering also was born out of military need, during World War II and the decades after.
Today, biomedical engineering is all the rage in university education and modern hospitals, primarily because wealth and many new technologies have made it easier to improve the human body by design. Still, biomedical engineering is as old as civil engineering and traces its roots to military applications: Shields, helmets, bandages, and prostheses.
Engineering has always been a liberating force. Advances in engineering knowhow have made humanity freer, wealthier, and longer living. Thanks to engineering, the human species has expanded to every continent and can support more than 7 billion people.
Without fruits of engineering—without power derived from engines and chemicals produced in factories—we would perish. We are so dependent on power, devices, and products that we have become a “human + machine” species. Our machines, which are the products of engineering science, are organs. They are part of us.
The liberating effect that the organs of machine power have on humans is similar to the effect that the organ for vision (the eye) had on the spreading of animals. The emergence of vision 541 million years ago, during what paleontologists call the Cambrian period, enabled animals to explore their surroundings (for food, mate, and shelter) far more deeply, and with much greater safety, than what was possible with touch. The vision revolution touched off a rapid increase in animal life and new animal species that paleontologists call the Cambrian explosion.
The evolutionary change in movement on earth occurred in the constructal-law direction, from the biosphere without vision to the biosphere with vision. Every animal and “human + machine” specimen lives longer, travels farther, and arrives faster with a better organ for vision. This evolutionary direction is why the newer movers such as birds have better eyes than the more ancient fish, and why predators in all media have better vision (along with greater speed) than their prey.
In a way, the Cambrian explosion triggered by vision continues today in the evolution of technologies for warfare, transportation, and surveillance. Vision, or the advance knowledge that vision makes possible, is the ability to see ahead in space and in time. Imagine what ancient and medieval defenses would have been without fires lit on earth mounds to announce the approaching barbarians. Today, our most advanced weapons systems would be useless without specialized systems for fixing their position and that of the adversary; for instance, submarines would be disabled without periscopes and sonar. Likewise, all aviation requires radar and GPS, and vision platforms placed in Earth’s orbit warn us to take shelter from impending storms.
Thanks to engineering, humans have gained the kind of sensory abilities over the course of one century that have taken millions of years in animal evolution. These new abilities enable us to answer the urge, explained by constructal law, to move more easily and farther into the world.
The Great Liberator
The fruits of engineering empower us in many ways, not just through enhanced vision. These engineered contrivances are diverse—coming in many sizes and configurations, being as ancient as rope or as new as self-driving vehicles—and at first sight appear complicated, disorganized. That is not the case. Contrivances (literally, all artifacts, from μηχαvη or mēchanē in Greek) come from a continuous phenomenon of evolution of the “human + machine” species, toward more power and more movement, which means life.
Access to more power—that is, the ability to move across space, in opposition to the forces that oppose motion—due to the application of engines touched off an explosion in new contrivances, similar to the explosion of new animal senses and body plans seen in the Cambrian strata of the fossil record. New classes of contrivances became possible—so many, so efficient and useful, and so diverse, that we take their mother (the engine) for granted.
Most of the people who have access to electric power today have no idea how it got there except as the output of the electrical outlet. It is only when access to the fruits of engineering is severed, due to earthquakes and hurricanes or accidents and acts of despotism, that most people become aware of the monumental role that engineering plays in our lives today.
We engineers can point with pride at who we are and at the work we do. We are developing new contrivances and improving old ones, all with the goal of making each of us a more powerful and longer living member of the “human + machine” species. This is no exaggeration. The old man in 2018 who is aided by hip implants, hearing aids, and trifocal glasses is more capable than the young man of 1518, whose body was ground down by physical labor and who struggled against disease.
Think of such comparisons, and recognize your own great fortune. You carry with you both the contrivances derived from centuries of work and the knowledge that came to you from the science of useful things: Engineering. They came to you not because you are deserving, but simply because you were lucky to be born in the advanced society that was built by others, humble and modest, and hungry, too.
Acknowledgment: This essay is a tribute to the Roe family and the ASME for establishing the Ralph Coates Roe Medal “for a better public understanding and appreciation of the engineer’s worth to advanced society”