I loved engineering school. Loved it with a capital L.
Learning the principles of how the modern world works the way that it does — mechanically, electronically, chemically — fascinating. Solving equations derived to mathematically describe those machinations? With multiple decimal points? Be still my beating heart.
But that’s not even the best part. That’s just the appetizer — the opening act. The shrimp cocktail before the steak. The Wallflowers before Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. The best part, without a doubt, is turning to the back of the book to check your work. That’s right. The greatest thing about engineering school? The answers are in the back of the book.
That certainly doesn’t make things easier, just more certain. You know immediately — the surge of dopamine when you see that the number that took you 47 minutes and 3 calculators (remember those?) to compute matches the one on page 897, or the dismay when you see that no, the baseball that Joe Carter hit to win the 1993 World Series in fact wasn’t traveling at mach 14.93 (a speed that would send a baseball out of Earth’s orbit, not just out of the Toronto SkyDome) when it left his bat as your calculations indicated. Back to the drawing board.
Most of the time, life doesn’t give us such feedback. Sometimes it does — like the time that I suggested (less than half jokingly) to my wife (then my girlfriend) that we sell all of our possessions (I calculate this to equal $759.47 in TODAY’S dollars — that’s right, we were loaded) and use the proceeds to follow the Allman Brothers Band around the country until we ran out of cash (I’d still do it, but only if Gregg and Dickey reunite. I think we have slightly more than $759.47 worth of stuff, but you’d have to ask her. She keeps track of these things.).
The feedback I got from her following that suggestion was rather clear. But most of the time, life doesn’t give it to us as clearly as her “your brain is no larger than that of a goldfish” look.
No, most of the time life leaves us wondering.
Did I really need to yell at our younger 2 sons for horsing around like that — and was I yelling for the right reasons or because I couldn’t control my anger? What are the right reasons for yelling at a 6- and 8-year old? Will that yelling work at all, or will it just be more for the psychotherapists to unravel years down the road?
What can I do to show my wife that after 23 years as a couple I love her more than ever, even though my recent behavior certainly might not indicate it?
Are we doing the right thing by continuing to deny our oldest a cell phone until he’s 13, when all of his friends have them (no kidding, it doesn’t appear that he’s just telling us that)?
And where in the heck did I leave my glasses?
I wish I could turn to the back of the book. Page 1473: Well done, Dad. You nailed it. To the third decimal point. Or nope, try again. Check your assumptions and boundary conditions — maybe that’s where your error is. And by the way, your glasses are on the kitchen counter next to the Keurig.
Engineering school problems are full of handy assumptions — heat transfer problems are perfectly insulated, so don’t worry about heat loss to the environment. Frictionless surfaces on constantly-inclined planes. Ideal gases. Assumptions that make the calculations easier.
Maybe that’s the 2nd best thing about engineering school. The assumption of an ideal, frictionless world where you don’t need to factor in the environment.
No wonder I liked it so much.