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That Which Has Never Been

Watching the videos and reading about Judy Lee, I recalled something Marilyn vos Savant said: “Everyone knows we need teachers and nurses, and we all love to recognize the individual genius philosopher or mathematician. But the occupational group most responsible for modern society is engineers, who should win a ‘most under-appreciated’ award.”

How true! I’ve lately started to notice the way roads work and I’ve wondered about the layout of pipes and cables underground. I stand in awe of those who pioneered and perfected the technique of using circulating refrigerant to exchange hot, wet air for dry, cooler air, giving us both refrigeration and air conditioning. I’m more and more mindful that with just a flick of a finger I connect with deep wells of oil and veins of coal, with sun, wind, and water. Without knowing how it happens, I use those elements to light up or warm or cool my environment. Everywhere we turn we see such everyday miracles. We don’t often see or hear about the miracle workers.

It’s all French to me!

Who are the people who make these things happen? How do they choose to become engineers? I’m sure we could find many answers, but I asked one engineer I know. Dan McLaughlin, who has worked on the Navajo Reservation and on the Pueblos near Santa Fe, New Mexico, told me that the first time he thought about being an engineer was in his sixth grade class. “My teacher had bought into the ‘Sputnik baby’ ideas that science was super-important for the future,” Dan said. “She told us the difference between pure science and applied science. Pure science is for learning about things. Applied science, which is what we engineers do, uses science to do something useful.”

It goes without saying that scientists and engineers depend on each other. We’re all indebted to both. But Dan chose engineering because, “as a Calvinist/Presbyterian kid, son of a practical father, I figured that I wanted to be an engineer because what was the point of doing something if it did not accomplish something useful.”

“Scientists investigate that which already is; Engineers create that which has never been.”—Einstein.

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Sherry Austin

    Sherry Austin was nine years old when she admitted, during a class discussion, that evolution was possible. After school a bunch of bullies arrived on bikes at her house to beat her up if she didn’t recant. She didn’t. Forty years later, she had published three books of fiction and was traveling regionally giving a talk for the North Carolina Humanities Council on literary nonfiction about science when a neurodegenerative illness put a stop to that. These days, along with (and sometimes in spite of!) her comic alter-ego Trixie Goforth, she works what’s left of her brain to share her wonder about the natural world revealed to us by science. She values the work of scientists more than she can say. And you can find out more about Sherry at her website.