Arts book review

On the pillars of our craft

This into covers everything from the wheel to the design of sustainable systems


Engineering: A Very Short Introduction

By David Blockley

Oxford University Press

September 2012

If you are reading The Tech, there is a good chance you have learned the basics of engineering at MIT. In which case, an invitation to read a book called Engineering: A Very Short Introduction might strike you as — mildly put — unnecessary. If you are the cocky type, you may even be tempted to declare, with a smile and a zinger (“Why don’t you go ask the College of Cardinals to attend Sunday school?”), that this book is not for you. But you would be wrong.

Any engineer who has spent a few years out of the classroom (like yours truly) can benefit from reading this tiny volume as a refresher course on some basic, yet key, concepts of engineering: How pulleys can be used for mechanical advantage; the different stages of the Carnot cycle; how a turbo jet engine shares the same working cycles as a four-stroke piston engine; how electricity and magnetism interact to create movement in an electric motor; how silicon is used to make transistors, and these to make logic gates, and these to make flip-flops, and these to make digital arithmetic — and computers — possible.

Even if all these fundamental ideas from key areas within major branches of engineering are still crisp in your memory, you may still benefit from the big picture that the book offers. Blockley acknowledges six divisions of engineering activity — civil, mechanical, electrical, chemical, computing, and medical — yet he structures his book along the five ages into which “the story of engineering naturally divides”: gravity, heat, electromagnetism, information, and systems. The classification of the material into these five ages works wonderfully as a didactic mechanism.

It is only when the author himself deviates from his proposed structure that the book seems to lose steam. In particular, Chapter two, nominally on the age of gravity, is severely weakened by an unnecessarily long journey into the history of philosophy and science that consumes one-tenth of the whole book and leaves out precious gravity-related material, while pushing other details into the next chapter. With this exception, the rest of the content adheres to the structure, to great effect.

The price of the book is more than covered by chapter six alone, on the age of systems, which deals with a subject dear to the heart of those at MIT’s Engineering Systems Division: complex sociotechnical systems. This chapter on systems crowns the book and left me with a deeper understanding of why systems thinking is, or should be, the new way of doing engineering — not only because the fruits of our previous engineering efforts have grown to a level of complexity such that they have started to exhibit unexpected behaviors, but because the stakes are now higher than ever. After discussing risk in systems like nuclear plants and the power grid, Blockley goes to the heart of the matter: The defining test is climate change, where such high stakes affect our very future. “Engineers have to deliver sustainable systems,” he advises, “making systems durable, repairable, adaptable, robust and resilient.” As one who works within this field, all I can say is “Amen, brother! Amen.”