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This month we are delighted to have Anna Plodowski from the ICE Engineering Knowledge department reviewing Engineering – A Very Short Introduction by David Blockley.
Do you need to find a quick and readable introduction to engineering that explains some key engineering concepts for the intelligent lay person reading with some helpful diagrams? Then you've found it.
The first chapter defines science and mathematics as being about knowing, whereas engineering and technology are about doing. To me, that was a very novel and helpful distinction. The next four chapters take a historical overview of the development of different types of engineering, based on "the ages of" time, heat, electromagnetism and information respectively. I found these chapters fascinating and educational, with some of the examples illustrated with clear photos and diagrams. What I particularly liked was the linking between technological developments, showing how engineers used the same form of work, such as heat, in different ways over time, and how solving one problem even partially enabled the solution of other problems.
This book is packed full of examples, and therefore highly informative to the inexpert but curious reader. Sometimes careful attention has to be made to follow the explanations, but the increase in understanding and appreciation of engineering is well worth the effort.
However, it is the final chapter that was the most thought-provoking. In this, Professor Blockley argues that the key challenge facing 21st century engineers is that of acquiring a "systems thinking mindset" so that they design solutions that have regard to both to small-scale details within one engineering specialism, at the same time as the operation of wider systems comprised of multiple specialisms. This fits well with ICE's ambition to engage all built environment professionals in the civil engineering domain.
However, I would have liked Professor Blockley to have given at least one or two examples of systems thinking in practice. Given that he feels one significant challenge is "unknown unknowns" I also wasn't convinced that he was always discussing what he called "risks"; this sounded more like what economists would call "uncertainty" to me. But this is a very minor quibble. Each book in this A Very Short Guide series by Oxford University Press is kept deliberately short, so I know there's a whole lot more to be said, and done – as the daily work of engineers clearly demonstrates.
Overall, this book is a superb introduction to engineering for non-technical readers, fits very easily into a small handbag, rucksack or laptop bag, and is strongly recommended.
You can find more short introductions on a diverse range of subjects from civil and structural engineering, to innovation, plate tectonics and nuclear power, in the ICE library online.