Sprinkling stardust on industry’s skills problem


Engineers are notoriously bad at telling the outside world why they’re so great. Perhaps they should let Hollywood do it for them?

There’s no doubt that industry takes its much-reported skills shortage seriously: yesterday’s huge Women In Engineering Day charm offensive is just one example of how anxious it is to tap into a fresh pipeline of engineering talent.

But whilst it might be good at acknowledging the problem, it’s typically been less successful at coming up with a solution.

Which is where, perhaps, our friends from the world of physics come in, who this week called for the Christopher Nolan film Interstellar – in which astronauts travel through a wormhole in a search of a new home for humanity – to be used in the classroom.

Interstellar's scientifically accurate wormhole should be used in the classroom an academic paper has claimed.
Interstellar’s scientifically accurate wormhole should be used in the classroom an academic paper has claimed.

In a paper published in the American Journal of Physics, celebrated theoretical physicist Prof Kip Thorne, who worked as a scientific consultant on the movie, argues that the film’s scientifically accurate explanations of wormholes and black holes are a great way of teaching students about Einstein’s theory of relativity (although I must confess I didn’t feel any more enlightened after sitting through it).

Prof Thorne’s paper prompted a discussion on The Engineer’s news desk about whether a similar a case could be made for films with an engineering theme. After all, engineers or at least engineering themes are often hiding in plain sight in many of today’s biggest blockbusters.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given Hollywood’s obsession with the topic, films about space dominated our inevitable list: from the Right Stuff to Apollo 13, where engineers saved the lives of the crew aboard the stricken spacecraft, and more recently Gravity, which takes one of the industry’s biggest headaches “space debris” as a jumping off point. Ridley Scott’s forthcoming film, The Martian (based on the excellent novel of the same name) in which a mechanical engineer has to find a way of surviving on the red planet after being accidentally left behind looks another highly promising candidate.

Clearly, there needs to be some quality control. Engineers also feature prominently in some of Hollywood’s more fanciful offerings, and any effort to engage students through film should avoid stories where the gap between fact and fiction is too wide lest the realities of industry appear too underwhelming.  Tony Stark, hero of the Iron Man films, is an engineer, and entertaining as these films are, it’s debateable whether it has much educational value. 

Readers will no doubt be able to name many more films where engineers loom large, and others will snort at the notion that something as flippant as a film should be used to educate tomorrow’s engineers, particularly at a time when industry frequently complains about the level of technical knowledge coming into industry.

But great films, as with all great art, are frequently about more than just entertainment, and to return to the arguments of Prof Thorne isn’t it a “no-brainer” to make best possible use of the hours of research and expertise that film-makers have expended on putting complex themes in a wider context?