Sunday, July 28, 2013

Two Kinds of Mechanics

A friend sent me this comic in which a guy with a toolbox offers technical advice to someone running a particle accelerator. It's titled "Quantum Mechanic".

My field of specialization within mechanical engineering is called "applied mechanics" or "engineering mechanics" or for the truly status-seeking, "rational mechanics." We like to think of ourselves as better than mere mechanical engineers because of our conspicuous use of mind-bending mathematics. Some in the field refer to themselves as "mechanicians" but this has never really caught on.

Both mechanics and engineering could probably benefit from new names. Mechanics are people who fix mechanical things, and this obviously has only a remote connection with mechanics, the academic field. You have academically trained engineers, and then you have guys who run locomotives. A colleague used to show up at work every Halloween dressed as a locomotive engineer, in a striped hat and overalls and the whole getup.

Then there are "operating engineers", who are as far as I can tell are people who operate certain kinds of mechanical equipment. In college I had a summer job as a construction worker in a high-rise that was being built in Columbus. We often had to take the elevator between floors, but were not allowed to push the buttons. No. We had to tell a fat guy sitting on a folding chair which button to push. He rode up and down all day in the elevator, proudly sporting an "Operating Engineers Local XX" badge. Here I was slogging through differential equations when all I had to do to be an engineer was join a union.

And mechanical engineering conjures up, what else, but mechanisms. People hear mechanical engineer and they picture those giant flywheels you see in museums. But mechanisms are only a small part of mechanical engineering. The field encompasses thermodynamics, controls, fluid dynamics, and other subfields. We should call ourselves Physical Technologists or Gods of Physical Thunder or something more appropriate.

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