Saturday, August 11, 2012

Why Engineering Mathematics is not a "service" subject

We all have sensitive points !

I find that discussion of the 1976 Olympic Men's Hockey final distressing (Yes, Australia lost to New Zealand but please don't talk about it). A statistical analysis of the Bulldogs performance in AFL is another matter that is best left alone with me (OK, we only have one Premiership).

At work, the description of Mathematics as a "service" subject in Engineering is likely to raise the blood pressure. The term service implies that mathematics is some kind of ssecondary topic to Engineers, a kind of background material before they get to the meat of their degree.  RRRRRRR

Of course, some Engineers don't directly use much mathematics in their daily jobs, this is a particularly true in areas of management, sales/marketing and production. Even in the "hard" technical areas of Engineering such as design and research only a few are regularly performing mathematical operations in their daily jobs. Quite correctly, alot of Engineering involves "soft" skills associated with teamwork, communication and generic management skills. I feel no need to denigrate these skills compared to mathematics, physics and the core sciences associated with engineering, as it clear to me that great engineering is much as a triumph of organisation and human co-operation, as it is a celebration of powerful mathematics and science.

The film "Apollo 13" (and book by Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger) is an excellent portrayal of the need for strong leadership and teamwork, as well as deep technical knowledge, in solving challenging technical problems - in this case, finding a way to safely return astronauts from a damaged spaceship. "Huston, we have a problem" is the famous catch phrase from the film. This classic understatement from Gene Kranz (the legendary NASA flight director) who muttered these words in real life, emphasised the need  for calm analysis in the face of imminent disaster. As the films shows in some detail, what follows. is a story of determination, teamwork, careful sciscientific analysis of data and systematic evaluation of the options. The hero's of the films are as much the scientists, engineers and technicians on the ground as the three men in the damaged ship. We see the various players carefully checking calculations, modifying equations and running algorithms, as the drama unfolds. Human joy is unleashed as the Astronauts voices are heard after splash down, even the rock like Kranz sheds a tear.

What a wonderful celebration of Engineers and Scientists !

And here is my point ..... all of this is underpinned and linked by mathematical skills and the language of mathematics. It is rigorous training in arithmetic, trigonometry, algebra and advanced mathematics that allows the engineers to make sound choices under extreme pressure. As they rush to find the right path home, it is confidence in the core mathematics and physics behind their calculations that allows them to make life and death decisions.

Of course, not many engineering projects are as dramatic as "Apollo 13" but the point remain the same, even when engineers are not directly carrying out mathematical operations and analysis, it is their training and confidence in mathematics and fundamental sciences that empowers them to make wise choices.  Mathematics is not only the language of technology but also one it its corner stones. Mathematics is not "servicing" Engineering, it is a core topic, a central part of its nervous system and present in all its vital organs.

In summary, my advice to any young engineer is to pay close attention to your mathematics, develop your analytical skills and avoid supporting sportings teams that have only spasmodic success.


  1. i agree with this.Engineering Mathematics is not a service subject.its a core subject.

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  2. Calling maths a service subject is akin to my teenage son whining and asking why he has to learn maths. This is of course followed by the obligatory adolescent catchcry of "I'll never use any of this." He has picked the wrong person to argue the toss with here, since I work in software development I call on my maths skills most days :)

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