# Trust Me I’m An Engineer

Some time ago, on my usually waste-of-time website, I found a post about the first female engineer. As a female engineer – let’s not go into whether that’s self-proclaimed or not – , I naturally wanted to find out more.

First, it seemed necessary to find a definition for “engineering”.

As so many other words, engineering is derived from Latin. It can have originated from either – or perhaps both – ingenium or – and – ingeniare. As the word ingenious might hint, the first means something in the lines of cleverness, though I’ve also seen it translated as talent; the latter means to devise (according to wikipedia, I had more trouble finding the word through other sources). The stem of the word seems to resemble ingenerare (to implant) and ingenere (to instill by birth). Therefore it seems that the word initially meant something along the lines of having a natural talent for something but slowly evolved to coming up with clever tricks or solutions to solve a certain problem.

Nowadays, the current official definition of “engineering” is (according to Engineers’ Council for Professional Development):

The creative application of scientific principles to design or develop structures, machines, apparatus, or manufacturing processes, or works utilising them singly or in combination; or to construct or operate the same with full cognisance of their design; or to forecast their behaviour under specific operating conditions; all as respects an intended function, economics of operation or safety to life and property.

Hmmm, that’s one of those sentences that I still haven’t completely grasped after reading it three times and then I usually just give up. Let’s give that definition another try then. According to my understanding (and self-proclaimed experience), engineers aim to design (or invent, or optimise, or improve) something by the application of scientific and mathematical principles. This something can range from materials, instruments, software, living systems, you name it; basically anything that you can imagine inventing or improving on.

It differs from science mostly due to the fact that sciences aim to build on knowledge starting from predicions and hypothesis about the universe (or, anything).

If this not making much sense… Well, probably this comic by Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal does a better job on describing the essence of engineering:

So, I guess you can say that engineers are more interested in applying scientific knowledge to whatever they are working, while scientists are more aimed at acquiring said knowledge. In my opinion (and again, “experience”) the distinction between the two is not always very straight cut, and a lot of people are more somewhere in between, say applied scientist, or scientific engineers, or engineering scientist (though that last one sounds more like someone trying to create a race of super-scientists through genetic engineering). I also think it’s quite obvious that both (or all people on that spectrum) need each other to achieve progress.

Nevertheless, my post was going to be about the first female engineer. Because which ever way you look at it, woman are still underrepresented in these fields, even if the situation is already much more balanced than it used to be. It also strongly depends on the type of engineering. For example, while there are about 50% females studying bio-engineering or architectural engineering at my formal school, only 15% of engineering (that later specialises into mechanical, civil, chemical, biomedical, computer, and mathematical engineering) consists of female students. Perhaps “us girls” just need some role models?

The first candidate-rolemodel, and the “first female engineer” according to that post I mentioned, is Elisa Leonida Zamfirescu.

Elisa Leonida Zamfirescu

Elisa was born in 1887 in Romania, in a quite engineery – yes that is a word, stop it red squiggly line – family.  Her grandfather, on her mother’s side, was an engineer and so was her older brother Dimitrie. I imagine her as a child inventor, a bit like Violet Baudelaire, who did not give up after being rejected from engineering school (School of Bridges and Roads in Bucharest). No, she just applied to other schools, and in 1909, she was accepted at the Royal Academy of Technology Berlin. Three years later, she graduated, and started her career in geology laboratories back in Romania. She passed the war years (World War I) in the Red Cross, around which time she met her husband, Constantin Zamfirescu, a chemist.  She spent her engineering career leading several geology labs in the Geological Institute in Romania and teaching physics and chemistry. Her contributions include her role in identifying new resources of coal, natural gas and copper. She worked until she was 75, and died in 1973.

Despite her contributions to the world of engineering, Elisa was not technically the first engineer. Alice Jacqueline Perry, an Irish cailín born in 1885, graduated a few years before. Her family sounds very well educated; her father was co-founder of the Galway Electric Light Company as well as county surveyor for the County Council and her uncle invented the navigational gyroscope (two of her sisters also continued into higher education, by the way), Alice was quite a mathlete, or would have been if they had those in the 1900s.

Alice Jacqueline Perry

She received a scholarship to study at the Queen’s College in Galway in 1902, where she pursued a degree in engineering. She graduated in 1906, with first class honours. Alice was the first female engineering graduate in Ireland, the UK, and in my understanding the world. A month after her graduation, her father’s death caused her to take up his position temporarily for County Council, making her the only woman to have been a County Surveyor – basically a Council Engineer – in Ireland. She moved to London in 1908, starting a job as a Lady Factory Inspector. She moved to Glasgow in 1915 (and seemed to have continued an inspector job there as well). In 1921 she grew bored of engineering, an started writing poetry (eventually publishing seven books of poetry). She was heavily involved in the Christian Science movement, and moved to Boston headquarters in 1923, where she worked until her death in 1969, about a month after the moon landing.

These may seem like quite ordinary lives, but I can only imagine the challenges Elisa and Alice might have faced as female engineers in those days, just as female scientists or female doctors had a whole stream of male criticism and prejudice to swim up against.

I assume that there were some female engineers before 1900, though perhaps not with an official engineering degree; after all, inventors have been around forever and it is no great leap of imagination that some of those inventors were woman. And you might argue that we don’t really know any famous female engineers because they haven’t contributed anything major, but I will argue back that a lot of progress happens in little bits and every little contribution has been necessary to get to those major leaps. (Come to think of it, I don’t think I can name any great engineers off the top of my head.)

As there are quite some great female scientists, there are some great female engineers, and naming the first ones is only the start of a long list, that I am positive will grow longer in the future. Perhaps one day, I’ll find my name on that list. (I doubt it, but it can’t hurt to be ambitious, eh.)


More than Sci-Fi

We live in exciting times. Technology, that novelists and script writers could only dream of, now exists without us being amazed about it every single day. We have computers, that make immensely complicated calculations and simulations for us all the time. We send people into space and leave them there for months. We can talk to someone on the other side of the world with a simple click on a green phone logo, we can even see them if we want. We use the touch of our finger on a screen to control our devices. We ask our phone questions and it talk backs to give us the answers. We are able to step into virtual reality without getting nauseous. We send out cars that can drive themselves to map our streets. We are able to manipulate single genes, single molecules, single atoms.

Seriously, how are we not amazed every single day?

With all that has been achieved up to now, I can’t help but wonder: “What’s next?” Which crazy science fiction technology will we turn into reality tomorrow? Will humans soon be inhabiting another planet? Will some one create a working lightsaber?

Will we ever be able to travel through time?

I’ve dreamed about this. Not literally –  though maybe I have, I just never remember my dreams so there’s no way to tell – but conceptually. I love reading about it. I love watching movies about it. I love having discussions about the paradoxes it could create. But in the same way that I know the dinosaurs in Jurassic park aren’t realistic, I know it cannot and probably never will be real.

See how I said probably? Did you notice that spark of hope?

To start with, there’s the way my friend (oh wow, his last post is also about SciFi!) states that he’s travelling through time and space at a constant forwards speed, as we all are. So in that sense, we’re all travelling through time, slowly. More interestingly, by travelling through space at a high speed, one would be passing through time at a different speed than others, because the space traveller would have aged less than anyone who had stayed on earth. This idea is called the twin paradox (recently used to explain how Luke ends up being younger than Leia, even though they’re twins) and is due to time dilation, an aspect of special relativity where time slows down when moving at near light-speed speeds. (If you ever have the chance to ask Lieven Scheire to explain special relativity to you, don’t miss it, it’s genious.) So we are able to travel through time at different speeds, and essentially travelling little bits into the future, and renders me hopeful that more sophisticated time travel could be possible.

How would this work? It’s amazing to think that when we look into space, we’re actually looking back in time. Could it ever be possible to travel back in time as well? (I would think that if we’d like send people to travel through space beyond our solar system, travelling through time could be a prerequisite, that is if we want to actually have the same people coming back to tell us what they’ve seen.) Extrapolating from time dilation, we could imagine that travelling at a speed faster than light would allow time reversal. Unfortunately, we don’t even have the technology to travel as speeds close to the speed of light. And that’s not even mentioning that “faster than the speed of light” is not really a thing. (For now? <– See that spark of hope again?)

Another option would be travelling through wormholes, which is a connection between two different points in space time. Unfortunately, we’re not really sure those things exist, so that’s not really a possibility either.

Or perhaps we could build an infinite improbability drive, or a ship that moves time and space around us while remaining stationary. Or have a space ship that’s actually a living creature that propels us through the wibbly wobbly timey wimey thing. Or, I don’t know, a time travelling car?

But if it was up to me, I would tackle time travel differently. I would use a bath tub to travel through time, and incidentally space. (And a friend and myself came up with this idea before that movie about the hot tub time machine came out!)

Screen Shot 2015-08-12 at 13.38.45
See? Proof!

I guess for now I’ll just have to stick to fiction and keep on dreaming…