101 Things I Learned in Engineering School – John Kuprenas with Matthew Frederick (2013)

book296All engineers calculate. Good engineers communicate.

Now this was a book title that is WAAY off the beaten path for me, but I work in engineering with lots of engineers, and although I’m not an engineer, I need to edit and “translate” tech talk into normal plain English on a daily basis. I picked this small book up to help me get more of an understanding of the basic concepts that engineers use daily in how they think and design their projects. If I’m to translate engineering speak, I need to understand engineering speak, yes?

So, this was an acquisition from the New Release shelves at the library, and I loved reading it. As mentioned, I’m not an engineer nor do I claim to be, but I have worked with technical and scientific topics for the majority of my career. Thus, I was suitably chuffed when I came across an idea here and there in the book that I was already a bit familiar with. (Wow. All those years of reading and writing tech stuff have paid off!)

I’ve been trying to sum up this book, but it’s so packed with ideas that it’s probably best if I just report the random notes that I took during my read. Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong anywhere!

“Inside every large problem is a small problem struggling to get out.” Tony Hoare.

  • Concrete vs. cement – I’ve always thought that these two terms were identical and meant the same thing. Nope. Cement is an ingredient in concrete, with concrete being the result of a strong chemical reaction between the cement and the water. (Right?) Concrete is much stronger if cured longer (av. about 28 days). If concrete cracks on the surface (a la our driveway), this is the result of the top layer drying faster than the interior layers, and can be prevented sometimes by soaking the surface with moisture. Oh, and round corners distribute stress more evenly which leads to less cracking (wrt concrete etc.)
  • The Ford Pinto (car) was not really unsafe and, in fact, had a safer record than Toyota Corolla and the VW Beetle in 1975-76 when this was being publicized.
  • With ref. to IKEA furniture arriving in kits with a multitude of parts (why?): IKEA usually uses one set of hardware to align the parts and another set to fasten the parts together. Why do they do that? Because, these authors say, if you have different sets of parts, each set only has to serve one purpose. When you have an audience who are inexperienced home furniture builders, there is a higher chance of people making mistakes. If IKEA used a multipurpose kit (instead of the individual kits), there is a high chance of user error in the end. Breaking the parts into separate kits reduces the chance of error and keeps customers happier with the end product. (In theory!)
  • About the idea of failure:
    • I’ve always wondered why pulse oxymeters were so loose on your finger. (I just thought they were well used when it was my turn so they were loose through age.) But apparently, it’s deliberate as having them loosely fitting reduces the risk of injury should someone step on the cord. (Easy to come off finger so lower accident-risk.)
    • Lobster pots: (random topic, I know, but bear with me). Lobster pots are commonly held together with clips that fail quite quickly in the sea. This is because if the pots get lost or abandoned at sea, the clips will fail and release the wire sides of the pots which means that they lay down on the sea bed. By lying down, the now-defunct lobster pots are much less dangerous to shipping etc., than if the boxes were still in one piece.
  • About getting an electric shock if you’re doing home rewiring: Keep one hand in your pocket if touching electrical wires that suddenly release an unexpected charge. If you do get electrocuted, the current is then encouraged to seek a path through that one hand touching the wires, go up your arm and down that same-side leg to the ground. (If you have both hands on the current, then there is a higher chance that the current will probably go from one hand to another via your heart.) N.B.: This technique won’t keep you from completely getting shocked, but it could lower the consequences if you do.) Thought to self: how to do electrical work with one hand? Another thought: This tip doesn’t sweeten the pot when it comes to DIY electrical stuff for me.
  • Air is a fluid (which includes all gases and liquids). This might be obvious to everyone else but me, but I daydreamed through an inordinate amount of physics and other STEM classes when I was younger…
  • If the U.S. could capture all the solar energy available (currently only about 15-20%), the energy would be 50,000 times our current energy needs. (I know there are a lot more issues about this – storage etc. – but just the big picture here.)
  • Stochastic (re: statistics) – the outcomes depend on chance or unknowable relationships (e.g. trying to predict how a school of fish will move). It’s more accurate if you look at really small or really big groups of numbers.
  • Re: Christmas/fairy lights and how it used to be if one light went out, then the whole string went out. This is why: The string of fairy lights used to be a series of connections, one single electrical circuit that would go through each bulb before returning to the source. (Like a necklace.) Since the current would go through each bulb before returning to the source to be recharged (I think), the more lights you have in your string, the weaker the current gets before it returns for more juice at the source (so more lights get more dim). When one bulb was interrupted, the whole path of the current was interrupted and thus the whole string would go out. Voila.
  • About airplane take-off/landing terminology: I had always wondered why airline staff would use the terms “take-off” and “departure” at different times. Well, using the word “take-off” is forbidden by air traffic control personnel EXCEPT when air traffic controllers authorize an aircraft to take off. At all other times (like taxi-ing and to-ing and fro-ing on the ground), people are required to say “departure” or similar. Not “take-off”.
  • And I finally learned the difference between a screw and a bolt. (It’s not clear enough for me to explain, but I was happy to have it that squared away-ish in my brain.)

So – now you know. This title is one in a series of “101 Things I Learned…” including ones on fashion school and culinary school… I need some direction in those two arenas so thinking I need to ILL these at some point.


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