As we report with growing frequency, engineers have a major role to play in addressing the big issues of the age: from developing the tools that will help society cope with the ageing population to the practical responses to the effects of climate change. It’s inspiring, it’s important and it’s perhaps the most potent confirmation of the wider importance of engineers.
But before we drown beneath the worry of it all, it’s also worth reminding ourselves that technology development doesn’t always have to be about digging ourselves out of holes of our own making. Engineering and innovation is still often about doing remarkable things with a less sombre resonance, developing technology that may not address immediate economic or social challenges but which push out the boundaries of what’s achievable and in doing so ignite dreams, fire imaginations and inspire the next generation.
From the science of the unimaginably small to the high octane thrills of an assault on the record books this week has already provided two examples of what we might term “feelgood engineering.” First to the CERN headquarters in Switzerland, home of the large hadron collider, which on Monday, smashed together proton beams for the very first time. A monumental structure whose physical magnitude is at odds with the tiny particles it’s designed to detect, this is engineering at the service of physics, the application of technology not to solve the mundane, the sombre or the immediate, but to probe fundamental questions about the origins of the universe.
Somewhat more tangibly, back in the UK, the team behind Bloodhound SSC, the supersonic car with designs on the world land speed record, announced that they will begin building the vehicle in Bristol next year. Maybe the link is a little tenuous. After all, although an impressive feat, propelling a car at 1000mph or more obviously doesn’t quite come close to explaining the origin of matter itself. But like the LHC, Bloodhound, which has few obvious commercial spin-offs, is a reminder that Engineering’s power to inspire isn’t always constrained by immediate concerns.