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No. 2150:

by Andrew Boyd

Today, we beam up with guest scientist Andrew Boyd. The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

My father was never a fan of the original 1960s Star Trek series. He preferred The Time Tunnel, which thankfully wasn't quite as silly as yet another science fiction show, Lost in Space.

[Audio clip: "Danger, Will Robinson, Danger!"]

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea provided us with week after week of forgettable episodes like The Terrible Leprechaun, The Plant Man, and The Monster from Outer Space. Still, it was fun to watch, if only to see the predictable scene where sparks flew from control panels as the submarine Seaview listed violently from side to side. One thing was clear: the submariners needed a good engineer.

Star Trek had such an engineer in the likes of Lieutenant Commander Montgomery Scott, better known as Scotty. While Mr. Spock dealt with his emotions and Captain Kirk was off kissing aliens, Scotty stood forthright. Honest, hands-on, devoted to his work and shipmates; he was responsible for the care of the star ship Enterprise. If Scotty had any fault, it was his love for this mechanical mistress. From the matter-antimatter integrator to simple bearings, Scotty felt passionately for his consort.

[Audio clip: "My poor bairns."]

Scotty was also known for telling things like they were, more concerned with communicating facts than dressing them up.

[Audio clip: "We can't do it. If we keep this speed we'll blow up any minute now."]

And while he was willing to fight for the honor of his ship and captain, he sometimes demonstrated a lack of social skills:

[Audio clip: (Scotty) Klingons called you a -- a tin plated, overbearing, swaggering dictator with delusions of godhood. (Kirk) Was that all? (Scotty) No sir! They also compared you with a Denevian slime devil. (Kirk) I see. (Scotty) And then they said that you were a … (Kirk) I get the picture Scotty!]

We love Scotty because he's an amalgam of likable stereotypes about engineers. He's someone more at ease with machines than people; someone who likes to tinker. While these stereotypes display some truth, they really aren't a good characterization.

Modern engineers do far more than build better mousetraps. They design computers, skyscrapers, and spacecraft. Others improve the efficiency of manufacturing facilities or create stronger, lighter building materials. Years of college level mathematics are required for professional certification. And every good engineer understands that a machine isn't a success until the public has had its input into the design process -- until it has molded the machine to meet its needs. And through it all, engineers deal with humans, responding to society and shaping our culture. Engineering is far more than tinkering. It's a creative, intellectually challenging endeavor that continues to impact every corner of our lives. Yet most of us rarely think about how important engineers are. 

[Audio clip: "Captain, whatta we do?"]

I'm not sure, Scotty. Maybe we should do a radio program about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them. [Audio clip: "Aye, Sir."]

Aye, indeed, Mr. Scott. Take us out of orbit, warp factor 2 ...

I'm Andy Boyd, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Source material abounds on the web. Montgomery "Scotty" Scott (1920-2005) was played throughout the original Star Trek series, and in the movie versions, by The Irish Canadian actor James Doohan. Doohan was serously wonded in the Juno Beach landing on D-Day, but then went on to fly light observation planes for the artillery. He had a prodigious early career in radio and TV. But Star Trek so branded him as Scotty, that he could not really play anyone else afterward. He had remarkable skill with language, and it was he who invented the early versions of the Klingon and Vulcan languages.

Dr. Andrew Boyd is Chief Scientist and Senior Vice President at PROS, a provider of provider of pricing and revenue optimization solutions. Dr. Boyd received his A.B. with Honors at Oberlin College with majors in Mathematics and Economics in 1981, and his Ph.D. in Operations Research from MIT in 1987. Prior to joining PROS, he enjoyed a successful ten year career as a university professor.