The night of engineering philosophy

That was the topic of the great evening I had with Civil Engineering undergraduates at Imperial College London few nights ago. The idea behind the event was to enhance the communication between students and academic staff through informal chats on even more informal topics. Some wine and beer was served to get the conversation going. That is a completely separate topic, and completely irrelevant for this post, but in the era of interdisciplinary research, it would be interesting to discuss why the initial assumption behind organizing a successful social (academic) event is the presence of alcohol. Not that I mind, on the contrary. Because, interestingly, I just came from the Introductory Evening for the RCUK India Roundtable that was held in the beautiful garden of the Taj Mahal hotel in New Delhi. Only tea and coffee were served, and the conversation was quite vivid. It could be because all the people who were there are supposedly established academics and businessman with fully developed small talk skills. I was in desperate need for a glass of wine.

However. The night of engineering philosophy was organised as a set of roundtables, each with an academic acting as a moderator, and number of students participating. I had a privilege of talking to six very interesting and enthusiastic undergrads – two 1st year and four 3rd students. The first question asked was why we became engineers. And that is in itself a very philosophical question. Why do we become who we are today? What made us choose some profession as our potential future calling at the age of 18? Do we know what we want to become in life when we are 18? Students remembered clearly their reasons for choosing civil engineering: wanting to make something that counts, that you can see and touch; money; not having the slightest idea that there are other engineering disciplines other than civil; seeing it as applied maths. All valid reasons, I guess.

Then I remembered why I became a civil engineer. And it is really a rather peculiar story. I became a civil engineer because I failed to become an architect. That is who I really wanted to become when I was 18. My mother was an architect, so I thought I must have talent. I also thought it is cool to be an almost-artist (my perception of architects then, and I haven’t changed my mind since). And my best friend since we were six wanted to be an architect as well. So, all valid reasons as well. I was preparing for the architecture entrance exam for a year, doing drawing and maths. High school grades were good, the exam came, the exam finished – my best friend passed, I failed. Drawing, of course.

The fall back option not to lose the whole year was going for the closest substitute – civil engineering. Which I strongly believed was just a temporary solution, something I’ll do for a year so that no one can say – oh, there’s the only person from one of the best Grammar schools in Belgrade that didn’t get into the University (… and then in the lower voice – because she never really wanted to admit to herself how bad in drawing she really is). And in all honesty, I am terrible in drawing. One day I will draw something for you and post it here. You can take a look at it when you feel down and it will make your day. It is that bad.

The exam for the Civil Engineering Faculty was just maths test, but bit more difficult maths than for architecture. Although I was always good in maths, I was not that good that I can afford not to practice almost at all before the exam, which is exactly what I did. Or rather what I didn’t do. Fair enough, I was a bit depressed, and I didn’t really care what would happen next. Or I believed that two bad things never happen in sequence. The maths test came, the maths test finished – and I was below the threshold! Only 2.5 out of 100 points, but still below. Which meant that I would be doing nothing for a year, during which I will have time to get properly depressed while wrestling with feelings of self-pity, eventually accept reality for the sake of not losing all my friends who would not be able to bear my moaning any more, and get back to seriously preparing for another exam.

But strange things can happen sometimes. The day after the exam I came back to the University to collect my documents, and at the entrance there was a huge note: “Due to the typo in the question x in the maths test for the Civil Engineering undergraduate studies, all students are given additional 5 points”. And I was in! I became the student at the Civil Engineering Faculty of the University of Belgrade because someone had a bad typing day! But once I was in, I loved every minute of it. Well, not actually every minute, but I felt I belong there. I was actually very good in technical drawing. And I loved finding patterns in the complicated things they tried to teach us. Once you put all the pieces together, and the puzzle is not a puzzle any more, but a clear picture of your solution, then you mind becomes overwhelmed with such a burst of emotions that the feeling becomes almost like an addiction.

Which in my case it probably did. Even now, too many years after I started calling myself a civil engineer, I still have this feeling of butterflies in the stomach every time pieces of a problem puzzle are spread in front of me. Usually, just some of them. Sometimes only a few of them. Then you need to search, and dig, and think, and combine, and think again. Sometimes you have to unlearn something you have learnt to free your mind so that it can reshape a piece that doesn’t fit. And one by one, the pieces are falling into place. In that moment when the picture is complete you understand why you would go through the whole agony again and again and again. I guess my message to all of you young people out there, who may be civil engineers or not, is that even if sometimes the paths we take in life are a combination of an unusual set of circumstances we cannot understand or explain (nor we should try to), we should embrace every opportunity that life gives us, and see if we belong to where that path is taking us. Or to paraphrase the famous saying: you will forget sleepless nights, you will forget miles of running tackled or glasses of wine drunk to ease the mind, but you’ll never forget how you felt when that last piece fitted into the aching void of the puzzle called an engineering problem. I guess this is philosophical enough.

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About Ana Mijic

Lecturer at Imperial College London interested in urban water systems, water resources assessment and climate change mitigation. Wandering, but is not lost.
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