The Hitch Post

# These are a few of my favorite formulas

I always find it interesting how people from outside an organized group expect characteristics of individuals within the group to conform to a stereotype. For example, when I played on and managed a men’s softball team, one of our team members was a pediatrician. I found it unusual that a pediatrician would play on a men’s softball team. My stereotypical perception of doctors would have their preferred recreation to be playing 18 holes of golf at a private country club every Wednesday with other doctors.

I suppose many people have formed stereotypical opinions of engineers. When I was in college, the stereotypical engineering student wore a calculator on his or her belt — yes, I knew a girl who did this. And in extreme cases, he (I never saw the girls do this) used a plastic pocket protector to hold a variety of writing and drawing utensils. Of course, many — maybe even the majority — did not fit this stereotype. But one characteristic I think the majority of engineering students shared was a keen interest in what makes things work.

Suppose, then, you were an artist who had been commissioned to produce a painting that captured the essence of engineering. I found such a piece in a calendar from National Engineer’s Week. I didn’t really need a new calendar, but I thought I’d page through it to check out the artwork for each month. An image I found particularly interesting was the one for November, which is reproduced here.

This piece depicts a wide variety of engineering fields, such as rail transportation, space exploration, energy generation and transmission, and agriculture. However, one, and only one, equation appears in the illustration – it’s e = mc2. Have you ever used this equation in the course of your job? Of course, I can’t speak for all engineers, but I’ll bet less than 1% have ever actually applied this familiar formula.

So what formula would best represent the work done by engineers? My favorite is x = 1/2at2 + vt + x. Now, I realize this equation might seem too complicated to incorporate into artwork. So my second choice would be F = ma. This equation is even simpler than e = mc2 and has far more practical applications.

Of course, those in the electrical world would probably lobby for E = IR, which, again, has far greater application than e = mc2. While we’re at it, those involved in fluid power would likely vote for F = PA.

Considering all the different fields of engineering, it would be difficult to reach a consensus about a single representative equation. But I don’t know of any group that would promote e = mc2, except, of course, the proverbial rocket scientists. And most of them did wear calculators on their belts when they were in college.