Friday, June 12, 2009

Here's Why Engineers Aren't Famous

Back in the 1970’s, there were not many famous scientists or engineers, and now, there are almost none. If you disagree, try and name one, right now. Go ahead, try it. Who did you come up with? Carl Sagan? No he’s dead. Try again. Stehpen Jay Gould, the Harvard guy who talks about dinosaurs? No, he’s dead too. Hawking? Sure, Stephen Hawking is alive, but he’s far more well known for overcoming his disabilities to do great scientific stuff, than for his scientific stuff itself (Can anybody really understand “A Brief History of Time?). Perhaps, on odd occasion a autograph seeker stalks MIT’s Old Main in hopes of obtaining Marvin Minsky’s or Noam Chomsky’s signature, but really, very few scientists need bodyguards to keep away the star struck rabble.

On the “Q-Scale” of modern fame where Albert Einstein stars with a 54 and George Takai rates a 1, no living scientist or engineer even shows makes a blip on the Sulu’s radar screen. It’s pitiful, but the truth is that no technology related individual, with the exception of Bill Gates, pulls a higher Q score higher than Count Chocula.

The point is there are many, many excellent engineers although the majority of whom are not well known outside of their own companies. In fact, the term "famous engineer" is an oxymoron on par with "nondairy creamer", "dry martini", or "jumbo shrimp". Unlike like say, journalists or lawyers, few people can name more than one or two famous engineers, real or fictional. A recent poll, (I asked my friends one night, while drinking) determined the most famous engineers in history were Thomas Edison (a good choice) followed by Scotty on Star Trek, and then a big gap to Q, the gadget guy in James Bond movies. Beyond that, it’s a lost cause.

Although many of the things that engineers, tinkerers, and radical, technological self expressives make are quite well known, the people behind the things rarely capture the limelight. Why are tinkerers, engineers and technological self expressives so hidden from fame?

Perhaps it is due to their slightly offbeat sensibilities compared to the population as a whole. Although it is not politically correct to assign traits to groups of people as a whole, I have found that more or less, engineering/tinkering life is based on a few basic principles, none of which are designed to attract attention, or at least favorable attention. Here they are:

1. Engineers as a group dig the original Star Trek (note the George Takai/ Mr. Sulu reference in a preceding paragraph.) It's a small wonder, since the only place on television with heroic engineers is the starship Enterprise. And even better, they occasionally get to have sex with aliens. This is much more glamorous than the real life of an engineer, which consists of living like salaried prairie dogs, in fabric covered cubicles, deep in suburban office plantations, dreaming of alien sex.

2. As noted above, GQ and Details Magazine spend little time courting the engineer reader. Trendy clothing is not a priority for an engineer. In fact, if the bridges of their eyeglasses stay taped together okay, and nothing embarrassing such as private parts or nipples are unwittingly exposed, then their sartorial objectives have been satisfied. Anything else is overkill.

3. When something funny happens, instead of manly, hearty laughs, people who tinker with machines tend to smirk. Actually, it’s worse than that, far worse - they giggle. This is very unfortunate for the whole group’s public relations effort and the less said about this, the better.

4. Extreme tinkerers, to a person, share a love for special purpose buildings and vehicles. Ask one what they’d like more than anything else in the world and nine out of ten will say “a 20’ x 30’ heated workshop out in the back with oversized doors and 200 amp, 480 volt electrical service.” Besides the workshop, all extreme tinkers covet a trailer large enough to transport their hobby all over the country. The trailer must come with a professional paint job on the side that reads “TEAM EXTREME” or something similar in red and black script.

5. Tech-geeks are a pretty frugal group. Now, do not misunderstand, no one is saying that radical technical self expressives are cheapskates. They're behavior is not attributable to a miserly disposition or to simple penny pinching avarice. It is really much more about looking at every spending situation as opportunity to substitute knowledge for cash, a tradeoff that most engineers would make in a heartbeat. Moreover, when the conditions are right (like when building something really, really cool), all thoughts of economy are vacated. A different engineering trait kicks in and the sky’s the limit. Which brings us to the last trait.

6. In their own weird way, they have very large egos. Two things are important to the people who tinker on large, involved projects: The first is how smart they feel they are, especially when comparing themselves to other people. The second thing is how many cool things they can make. Your pocket protected, handbook carrying, soldering-gun-at-the ready tinkerer cannot walk away from the challenge of making something really new and unique until it is met head on and conquered. If it's a really, really tough problem, it’s like watching the police dogs on "Cops" go after a shirtless car thief - they are just relentless. They clamp on to tough problems like grim death -- to them, it’s a titanic struggle between their will and the laws of physics. It's been said that radical tinkerers will go without food and hygiene for days when they’re working on a project. (At least that’s the excuse they use.)

And when they succeed in building something really, really cool, they will experience an ego rush that is better than sex - well, alien sex in a weightless environment notwithstanding.


Martin O'London said...

Not such a problem in the UK, and off-hand (though all now dead:)
Stephenson (father and son)
Brunel (father and son)
Alec Issigonis (the Mini)
Telford (canals and roads)

But no living ones come easily to mind, except Clive Sinclair and James Dyson.

Anonymous said...

Dean Kamen is pretty damn famous. I would venture to say that there are few if any famous engineers & scientists because they are not being truly innovative and exciting. Discover or invent something amazing and the world will take notice. Cure for AIDS? Nope. Cure for Cancer? Nope. Flying cars? Nope. Holographic computer display at my desk? Nope. Where is the future people? What are you doing with your big giant brains anyway? Dean Kamen seems like the only one who comes up with (sometimes) mindblowing stuff.

John J Kaufman said...

Seriously? No famous engineers? Linus Torvalds, Bill Gates, Dean Kamen, Larry/Sergei?

Anonymous said...

Bill Nye the science guy-- ask any kid..
The physicist neil degrasse tyson-- he is funny as hell-- should hear him talk how a human would deal with a black hole.

Shane said...

The reason Engineers are not famous is because Engineers do not work alone. Case in point, Dean Kamen.

Dean does not dream up all the things his group creates, he merely leads a team of engineers and scientists, and he gets the money to do crazy things, and he knows how to play the press.

The Segway? Very interesting, but not very popular or useful. His prosthetic limb? Ground breaking! Much more likely to change the world, but not much fanfare for it.

Modern Engineering is just too big and too complicated for the Lone Wolf to do anymore.

Anonymous said...

I'm an engineer, and I am not like this at all.

Anony said...

Michio Kakku has a very high public profile; your dismissal of Stephen Hawking is unwarranted and inaccurate; Linus Torvalds is well known, as is Niklaus Wirth; MIT's Marvin Minsky is well known, as are Gregory Benford and Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Ryan said...

Stephen Hawking
Michiko Kaku
Grant Imahara
Neil deGrasse Tyson
Bill Nye
David Suzuki

and those are just off the top of my head. I'm sure I (and any group of friends chatting over a pint in the bar, or a cocktail on the deck) could think up more if pressed.

I don't think there is quite the gap in intellectualism you think there is.

And honestly, I think there has never been a period where specialized professionals have gained widespread popularity. For example, how many piano virtuosos or champion chess players can you name?

Anonymous said...

It's George TAKEI, not Takai.

Just sayin.

Shane said...

Ummm, Woz, anyone? Grant Imahara? 'The Google Boys'? Dean Kamen ?

Expand it to tinkerers and geeks and the list gets even longer...

Adam Savage, Jamie Hynman are BIG standouts.

Bill Nye, Neal DeGrasse Tyson. Turn down the academic accomplishment filter, and you find Bruce Schneier, Neal Stephenson, Jason Calcianis, Kevin Rose. Open it a little further and you start to find people like Cory Doctorow, Xeni Jardin, Mark Freuenfelter and the rest of the crew from BoingBoing.

There are a lot of role models out there for personal and social awareness strong advocates of technical and scientific pursuits.

I also have to disagree about your casual dismissal of Stephen Hawking. All of these guys are famous for more than their accomplishments. They are famous for their personal quirks, and personalities. Stephen Hawking's disability is his media hook. It provides an accessible angle for the media to cover him. combine that with his incredible contributions to cosmology and ou have a recipe for a media darling.

It's unreasonable to expect very many members of highly specialized fields to be in the public eye. How many famous surgeons do you know? Most people know one ( Sanjay Gupta ) if they know he's a surgeon at all.

How many famous financiers do you know? Warren Buffet, Steve Forbes and who? How many can you name that aren't Billionaires? Why do you know them because they are brilliant financiers, or because they are billionaires?

Do you know the first name of Hewlett and Packard? Of course not - it's Bill and Dave. You only know their last name because they built a multibillion dollar company. No deep discipline is exciting enough to outsiders to make someone 'famous'.

I want people to see just how much fun science and engineering are as much as the next guy, but the fame model just doesn't apply. If you want people to get excited about science, the just go out and PLAY. Science is easy to love, you just have to show people that there is more to it than the boring garbage that passes for high school science now.

I dare you to find a person that isn't excited by what liquid nitrogen does to ... well just about anything. :o)

Anonymous said...

When doctors or lawyers ply their trade, they save people from something bad (illness, death, jail, injustice, ...). When engineers do their job well...nothing interesting happens. For the vast majority of engineers, our job is to make sure things work efficiently, reliably, and most importantly, safely. These are not sexy qualities, but they are necessary. Having been a professional engineer my whole career, I've thought about this a great deal. My conclusion is that the very nature of sound engineering is very un-dramatic. If things are exciting, we've done our job poorly. Examples of "exciting engineering": plane crashes, power outages, sewage plant failures, levee breaks, car breakdowns, etc.

The exception to the rule is true innovation. Most folks know who invented the light bulb, who flew the first airplane, who invented the telephone. There is an opportunity for recognition if you invent something really useful, but this represents a tiny fraction of the engineering universe. An interesting case that occurred to me while typing: one of our greatest (read: most publicized) engineering feats is when JFK told us to go to the moon and we did. I don't have the figures at hand, but we spent a sizeable portion of the US GDP on that project. The odd thing is I can't name a single engineer that was involved. I'm a little ashamed...

colleen said...

Omg, this describes (and explains) my husband perfectly!

Roberto said...

Very U.S.-centric post, perhaps understandably. In some other countries, however, scientists have higher standing. I'm thinking of a visit I made to the Soviet Union, shortly before its name change, in 1991, as a guest of the Academy of Sciences. I'm American, and I had the eye-opening experience of meeting, and being entertained by, scientists who were real national heroes.

Admittedly, Russian science has lagged since the dissolution of the USSR, but ...

Patrick Rogers said...

Engineering as a profession is not one where being famous accrues any significant advantages, although there are exception. Engineers are not famous, but their creations very often are, and that's what goes on the resume.

Who would you rather be: the person who gets invited on Larry King to talk about "the future", or the one who gets his/her hands dirty working on all the cool projects? Becoming an engineer typically means self-selecting into the latter group.

Bob said...

I hate to be technical, but in order to get anyone the least bit well-known, you have included physics, chemistry, math, medicine, astronomy, and TV acting; which of course tends to support the original point. And nobody mentioned The Professor or McGiver, two of the greatest in the last category.

OK, I lied - I don't really hate to be technical!

Bob said...

P. S. Bob is Colleen's (see above comment) husband.

Shane said...

Re: Bob

:o) To be technical, I was actually trying to refer to any field requiring deep knowledge. I just got sidetracked by my little speech on getting people excited about science in general. If you weren't actually talking to me, then I'll stay in my monomaniacal little bubble and pretend you were anyway :o).

Whether it's chemistry, physics, finance, medicine, engineering or any other field requiring specialized knowledge and understanding, it has the same problem. Fame is usually a function of wealth generated, or some other attribute that is more 'accessible' to the media than the very specialized work that is what actually makes them standouts in their field.

If Galois was around today, he'd probably be famous, but not because he described laid the foundations for set theory. Instead it would be because he was a 'bad boy' mathematician. His contribution to mathematics was far more important than his personal life, but his work was dense, and difficult to understand, and so would never have made him famous outside his field of specialty.

A more modern example would be Craig Venter. He's famous not so much for his contributions to the Human Genome project ( which were significant ), but because he has built and fostered a reputation as a 'Scientific Maverick'. I'm not trying to minimize his contributions, but the only reason that I, a relatively educated lay person, actually know his name is because he became a darling of the media, otherwise I would only know him as a nameless member of the team that worked/works on it. But I know HIM because he was the most interesting character doing the work when the media got interested.

It's not that we have some fundamental dis-respect for scientists and engineers, or even that we somehow have less respect for them. In the modern world, fame - much like popularity in highschool - is it's own form of currency. It requires time and energy and dedication to cultivate and maintain it, especially if you want to be famous to people who dont necessarily have the education or experience to fully grasp what you do.

Most people who have invested the time and work and energy to master any complex field simply aren't willing to take time a focus away from what they consider to be what is really valuable and important to cultivate something like 'fame'. So instead, you only get 'famous' when what you consider really important, or at least really fun and satisfying, happens to cross paths with what is interesting to the media at any given moment.

Australian said...

Tim Flannery.

If you make generalisations online these days, you should probably try to remember that the English-speaking internet is greater than the English-speaking United States.

Rebecca Haden said...

Noam Chomsky's a linguist -- still a scientist, to be sure, but quite different from engineers. I know this because I'm a linguist myself, and I work with engineers.
We're naturally more likely to be famous than engineers because we use terms like "uvula" and "deep structure" which sound vaguely sexy.
Also, unlike many of your commenters, we are able to recognize humor. ;-)

Piotr Mitros said...

Engineers aren't famous for structural reasons. Go see a movie. At the end of the movie, you get credits. I remember Arnold starred in The Terminator. I do not recall that it was put out by Orion Pictures. Buy a copy of Harry Potter. The big name on the cover is Rowling, not Bloomsbury Publishing.

Now, look at engineering. The AD797, one of my favorite op amps, was designed by one solitary engineer. Try to figure out who. Look at the data sheet. It is made by Analog Devices, and that's all that's given.

The same is true of almost all fields of engineering (few exceptions include architecture, and used to include non-video-game software).

Engineering companies (much like publishers of creative works) would prefer their best employees to keep working for them, and more importantly, not to pay top performers their worth, so they would prefer their competitors to not know who their top employees are.

Authors, actors, musicians, and others have strong guilds which give collective bargaining power, and guarantee that the people involved receive credit. Engineers have organizations like the IEEE, which overall, do nothing to help engineers, and otherwise, do more harm to those professions than good.

The key grip in a movie can take his friends and family to the movie, sit through the credits, and show his name in big letters. Many engineers can't even describe which product they are working on due to NDAs.

If we wanted to fix the problems in engineering, the trick would be openness. We would need to reform organizations like IEEE and NAE to give engineers collective bargaining power (or create new organizations). That bargaining power would need to be used to change industry norms from anonymity to openness. Key engineers on products should have their names associated with that product. NDAs should be severely curtailed, so that engineers can describe their key contributions to friend, family, and their professional community (patents and copyrights provide adequate protection -- limiting duration of NDAs to a couple of years would have minimal negative repercussions, and many positive ones).

At that point, wage disparity for engineers would rise dramatically (at least near the very top), as people could see who the good ones were. Kids would have role models of rich and famous engineers. Top engineers would stop leaving the field in droves for better paying professions (almost none of my friends from MIT undergrad are still in engineering -- most have moved on to investment they've all banking, law school, management consulting, and other fields where key contributors are recognized and compensated appropriately).

Philipp said...

What about Building Engineers?

Peter Rice?

Anonymous said...

Thomas J. Kelly aerospace engineer, Apollo 13 check out his bio, what a role model.