To see ourselves as others see us

4 min read

Features editor Society holds up a mirror to engineering, showing the profession how it is regarded. Here, Stuart takes a look at some recent examples of real and fictional engineers and STEM workers on screen and stage, and observes a worrying liking for booze, questionable ethics and some appealing housing.

We’ve occasionally said that the image of engineering would be greatly enhanced if the entertainment industry were to depict engineers in films, plays or television programmes. On the basis that children can’t become something they can’t see, these figures would act as role models; moreover, having examples of the profession depicted clearly would help weave engineering into society in a similar way to doctors, lawyers and even vets, so often the subject of fictional drama.

As it happens, there’s a plethora of engineers and STEM workers on stage and screen at the moment, both fictional and real. So I thought I’d take a look at a few examples and see how the entertainment industry sees the profession — and, by extension, what impression the public might take away from this.

Addressing the younger section of the population, one of the most fabled members of he profession is back. Brains, the stammering genius who designed and built International Rescue’s iconic vehicles has, like his employers and friends, shed his strings in the new, CGI-and-models version of Thunderbirds Are Go. He’s also shed most of his stammer and some of his social awkwardness, got a bit fitter, had a style make-over and, somewhat mysteriously, acquired an Indian accent that he never had in the 60s. You can’t fault Brains as a role model: for a start, he’s explicitly called an engineer in the programme’s opening sequence; he’s an innovative problem-solver who works on distinct projects, and he reflects the increasingly international nature of the industry. However, he is a ‘lone genius’ stereotype of a kind not actually found anywhere in the sector.

Brains old and new, in the 1960s original and 2015 revival of Thunderbirds

Sticking with the fantastic end of the spectrum, another fictional engineer makes his return to the cinemas this week: Tony Stark, better known as the armoured superhero Iron Man, in the latest instalment of the Avengers films. Stark is a team player, like most engineers, working on technology as part of a large company and seen collaborating. OK, he’s sarcastic, erratic and moody, but these are recognisable human attributes (shared even by some journalists, as my colleagues often tell me). Stark comments that his role is not to be the leader; he just ‘pays for everything, designs everything and makes everyone look cooler’ — not too far from the role of engineering in the UK economy. So it’s possibly a more realistic portrayal than Brains, if you leave out the flying suit of armour and the unlikely crew of colleagues.

A more sober recent film gives us what could be seen as a more grounded version. Ex Machina introduces us to Nathan, the chief executive of a technology company clearly based on Google, who has built an elegant female robot that houses what might be the first ever Artificial Intelligence with its own consciousness. Another lone genius type, we’re told Nathan wrote the base code for the world’s leading search engine when he was 13; and somewhat unrealistically, he also seems to be an expert in robotics, advanced computing hardware and exotic materials. Again, his personality is complex and somewhat opaque: he’s a fitness obsessive, like Stark a heavy drinker, and has unpleasant tendencies to violent outbursts and an underlying misogyny, not to mention the dubious ethics inherent in creating AI (this has been a trope ever since Frankenstein). But we’re not going to insist that all engineers should be good guys, and it’s even slightly refreshing that Nathan’s enigma and villainy aren’t of the usual ‘mad scientist wants to take over the world’ type. So it’s not a flattering depiction and not entirely realistic, but he’s a rounded human being with recognisable personality traits.

Ex Machina
Lone genius: engineer Nathan (right, played by Oscar Isaac) discusses robotics and AI with his employee Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) in Ex Machina, in one of the rare scenes where he isn't drinking or working out

Interestingly, Nathan lives in a fantastic futuristic house-cum-research-facility accessible only by a two-hour helicopter flight over a glacier. But if anyone thinks that engineers don’t enjoy such Bond Villain surroundings in real life, they should take a look at the McLaren Technology Centre or the house which stood in for the villain’s lair in the most recent series of Sherlock, which belongs to Renishaw chief executive Sir David McMurtry. Join the profession and you too could live in a house like this.

Switching from fictional STEM people to historical ones, the fascinating play Oppenheimer, currently in the West End, depicts the Manhattan Project to develop the first atomic bomb in World War II and some of its key figures, including J Robert Oppenheimer, Edward Teller, Hans Bethe and, making cameo appearances, Richard Feynman and Klaus Fuchs. It doesn’t skimp on science or engineering, using a lecture format to explain both the mechanisms of nuclear fission and fusion and how these phenomena were harnessed into bomb-making. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is the most realistic portrayal of engineering, showing how the team worked together (or in Teller’s case, didn’t) and drank together (alcohol seems to crop up a lot in portrayals of engineers, doesn’t it?); how this community of theoretical physicists adapted to working as engineers (or, again in Teller’s case, refused to); and the conflicting personalities, political views and ethical wrestling that accompanied their work in the remote desert; and how this changed up to the Trinity Test, beyond it to the bombing of Hiroshima and its ghastly aftermath, and how it haunted Oppenheimer afterwards. Teller emerges as the least sympathetic portrayal: prickly, arrogant and antisocial, he share many of the traits that Ex Machina writer Alex Garland gave to Nathan. But this does appear to be quite a realistic version of the self-proclaimed Father of the Hydrogen Bomb.

So, look for engineers on stage and screen and you’ll have a varied opinion of what they’re like. Solitary or social; ethical, heroic or villainous; conflicted or sure of themselves; thriving in isolation or seeking companionship. The only things that are certain is that they’re fond of the booze and sometimes live in nice, if odd, houses.

Of course, portrayals of engineers are always going to be subordinate to the needs of narrative: they’re therefore always going to be somewhat contrived. We’d be interested to hear how our readers think that engineers should be portrayed. What are the essential characteristics that and engineer character should have? What would lift a character above cliché and caricature to make them recognisably a STEM worker? How would you like to see yourselves, and are there any depictions you think stand out as exemplary?