Margin Call

This page written circa 25 April, 2015.

Colleagues and I have speculated for decades about the load of fictional media about lawyers and doctors while there is virtually none about engineers, and how come engineers are not so well recognised financially, to add insult to invisibility. The IEEE sought the answer to these questions, also decades ago: lawyers and doctors are seen doing their thing in hospitals and courtrooms all over the world, and these events are usually brief but intense moments for their clients. Engineers, on the other hand, do their work away from the public eye, and it takes longer than most people's attention span. The most common question asked by prospective students is "what do engineers actually do?", but they don't have to ask that of doctors and lawyers. Nobody has found the cure for this yet.

Nevertheless, there are now programs that give glimpses of engineering. I don't mean cartoon-like glimpses. Dilbert has characteristics of engineering life, but its portrayal is less realistic a view than Big Bang Theory gives of physicists. I mean glimpses of what engineers are really like. Primer is a science fiction film, but its protagonists are EEs portrayed realistically. The Wind Rises is animated, set in Japan, and set after WWII, but it carries the spirit of aeronautical engineers. Even Margin Call shows a realistic view of two engineers, albeit ones that made it into the world of finance. Tucci's speech on the steps is a gem, and Quinto calls it with the true style of an engineer.

Truth be known, my most successful students hardly practiced electronics, but became money movers.

The flashes in those films of engineering personalities have something in common with the electronics profession: They are "infrastructural", not central to the story, but a key part that makes it possible. The bank in Margin Call would not have been alerted to the crisis if Stanley Tucci's and Zachary Quinto's characters had not been truly engineers underneath, blessed with the mindset of engineers. Likewise you would not have much of an internal-combustion automobile were it not for electronics; you would have no internet if not for EEs; your lot would be miserable healthcare; dull would be many films, animation no more exciting than Bugs Bunny; reproduced music would be crummy and not very loud; long-haul travel would be slow and expensive; mass production would not have made so many things so inexpensive, and printing things would be arduous and costly. Sure, mobile phones and digital cameras are visibly and almost solely the work of EEs, but in most other modern things the EE contribution is vital but relatively invisible.

One of the most valuable preparations for future engineers will be the body of works that afford glimpses of the mindset of sharp engineers. Roll on the engineering version of House, the engineering Rake.

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