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Vol. 2, No. 6, November 2005

Welcome to Engineering Our World, the MIT School of Engineering's free bulletin for alumni and friends. Updated six times yearly, Engineering Our World describes some of the work we're doing at the leading edge of technological change, providing news and articles of the School's major initiatives.Past Issues

The Challenges of Engineering: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

by Dean Thomas L. Magnanti

Q: How many Deans of Engineering does it take to change a light bulb?

A: Four – one to get the pliers to remove the base of the shattered bulb stuck in the socket, one to shut off the electricity before the metal pliers come in contact with the socket, one to call the manufacturer's customer service line in India to complain about the shoddy quality of light bulbs, and one to conduct a systems analysis of the production of light bulbs and sockets.

Several years ago in a professional talk called "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly," I summarized

  • technical issues that my own domain had solved successfully (the "good"),
  • those that posed almost insurmountable challenges (the "ugly"), and
  • others that lay somewhat in between (the "bad").

Presumably, every field has its list of similar issues. What about engineering? What has engineering done very well? What are some of our most insuperable challenges? And what issues between these extremes do engineers face? Before you read further to see my personal reflections, I would encourage you to think about these categories and create your own lists. Like me, you might find doing so to be illuminating.

The "Good"

As I craft my list, it appears that the "good" and the "ugly" of engineering are easy to identify. (I'll say more about the "bad" later.) Regarding the "good," I have frequently commented that our world is replete with wonderful engineering achievements. Reflecting the National Academy of Engineering's list of monumental engineering accomplishments of the 20th century – we wake up each morning to clean water and to electricity in our homes and workplaces; we travel in our automobiles back and forth to work and to visit with friends and loved ones; we benefit daily from the fruits of information, communications, computer, and electronic technologies and from numerous other achievements of engineering. All of these technologies and many more benefit humankind. As a very personal illustration, I take a pill each day to maintain my cholesterol at a reasonable level. The "good" of engineering is indeed very good.

The "Ugly" . . .