Whether or not spending the winter cozying up with a good read sounds like your cup of tea, several experts in the field have published their eye-opening perspectives on engineering and how our field continues to evolve with the rest of the world.
Engineering careers often become quite the hard skills game: we deal with a lot of programs, software and numbers. However, as we continue to adapt to this age of technology we are living in, it will be our humanity that we’ll turn to to find our place in this increasingly digitized world.
Our critical thinking, our passion to innovate and our desire to understand are in need now more than ever before. Above all, these texts reiterate how vital it is that all engineers comprehend this, in order for us to keep moving forward.
Here are six books that every engineer should take the time to read.
1. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Author: Robert Pirsig
This narrative of a father-son motorcycle trip across America’s Northwest has become a bookshelf staple. If you haven’t read it, you should read it, and if you have read it, you should own it.
While acknowledging that we are indeed living in an increasingly complex world, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance focuses on the power of the self and what one can accomplish with his own two hands. It offers up answers to questions that seem too big to answer – for example, “what is quality?” Its idea of humans living better starts with us being more aware.
Noteworthy quote: “You are never dedicated to something you have complete confidence in. No one is fanatically shouting that the sun is going to rise tomorrow. They know it’s going to rise tomorrow. When people are fanatically dedicated to political or religious faiths or any other kinds of dogmas or goals, it’s always because these dogmas or goals are in doubt.”
2. To Engineer Is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design
Author: Henry Petroski
Henry Petroski is a professor of civil engineering at Duke University, where he specializes in this novel’s topic: failure analysis. He emphasizes the role of failure in innovation, citing well-known engineering failures such as the Hyatt Regency Skywalk and the Tacoma Narrows Bridge as examples.
To Engineer Is Human’s thorough analysis of design flaws and failures reminds the reader: no technological device can ever replace an engineer’s process of critical thought.
Noteworthy quote: “No one wants to learn by mistakes, but we cannot learn enough from successes to go beyond the state of the art.”
3. The Mythical Man Month (and Other Essays on Software Engineering)
Author: Frederick P. Brooks Jr.
This book of essays details the process of software development, but can also be applied to the management of complex projects.
In a particularly memorable metaphor from The Mythical Man Month, Brooks talks about women and babies, stating that regardless of how many people involve themselves in the process, the output remains the same at nine months. He says this to remind engineers that adding more minds to a project does not necessarily speed up nor enhance the end result.
Noteworthy quote: “The management question, therefore, is not whether to build a pilot system and throw it away. You will do that. The only question is whether to plan in advance to build a throwaway, or to promise to deliver the throwaway to customers.”
4. The Soul of a New Machine
Author: Tracy Kidder
Written in 1981, journalist Tracy Kidder’s observations of Data General in the late 1970’s remain incredibly relevant today, especially with the generational gap often discussed in manufacturing.
The Soul of a New Machine notes how the differences between a group of veteran engineers and a group of recent college graduates shed light on a new type of work ethic being brought into business. A pinball analogy is used to say that success is not a finish line in an era of technological advancement: you play to win, and then when you win, you get to play again.
Noteworthy quote: “‘I think I wanted to see how complicated things happen,’ West said years later. ‘There’s some notion of control, it seems to me, that you can derive in a world full of confusion if you at least understand how things get put together. Even if you can’t understand every little part, how infernal machines get put together.’”
5. Structures: Or Why Things Don’t Fall Down
Author: J.E. Gordon
Memorable because of his commitment to limiting engineering jargon as well as dry British humor, J.E. Gordon’s book is a commentary on how structures are the foundation of pretty much everything.
Structures calls attention to the precision of construction and structural engineering, a sect of the field that continually evolves with the humanity. There is irony in how little the general population understands how structures work, yet how much we rely on them.
Noteworthy quote: “Yet structures are involved in our lives in so many ways that we cannot really afford to ignore them: after all, every plant and animal and nearly all of the works of man have to sustain greater or less mechanical forces without breaking, and so practically everything is a structure of one kind or another.”
6. Our Final Invention
Author: James Barrat
This novel addresses the grim irony in the fact that governments and businesses around the world are funding a type of technology that is expected to surpass a human level of intention. The world of science fiction doesn’t seem so far away as Our Final Invention questions the downside of artificial intelligence, and the human ignorance to the fact that we praise new technology without even thinking about its side effects. Where exactly, is our place as humans, in a self- operating, self- learning, world?
As suggested by the title, though artificial intelligence may bring huge benefits, it may also be the last thing we ever invent. Though frightening in some ways, Barrat also manages not to be entirely anti- technology, suggesting we simply become fully aware of the capabilities and implications of artificial intelligence.
Noteworthy quote: “If we build a machine with the intellectual capability of one human, within five years, its successor will be more intelligent than all of humanity combined. After one generation or two generations, they’d just ignore us. Just the way you ignore the ants in your backyard.”
What are your favorite books for engineers?
What engineering books have you read? Which ones do you recommend? Let us know by tweeting us at @AppleRubber.