Jan 15, 2011

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Engineering an Engineer

I used to think that the job "engineer" refers to making some kind of engine, either for a car, boat, plane or whatever. After all, it does come from that word Engine. As I get older, I soon realized that the word engine in the context of engineering is in fact a process or system that functions according to scientific and mathematical concepts, which could be based on the domains of mechanical, electrical, chemical, civil, or aeronautical principles.

For some of us who are fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to be involved in research engineering, it is not merely "design the process/system X according to functions/constraints Y and you're done." Research engineering is what I like to call "Engineering the engineers," because it involves improving what design engineers do and the tools they use, rather than simply coming up with real-world designs such as the MPEG4 Codec, OFDM Modulator or a speech synthesizer. Its about making these stuff faster, smaller, and more reliable than what it is now by using a rigorous scientific approach.

Hmm.. How do I engineer an engineer.

Perhaps the highest recognition you can get from being a research engineer is the Noble Prize, which is usually awarded to the year's most significant scientific contribution. Last year's Physics prize for example that was jointly awarded to Russian scientists Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov for their discovery of a two-dimensional Graphene was nothing short of spectacular. The current state-of-the-art in electronics is silicon technology, and research engineers in this field explore Carbon-nanotube as an improvement alternative to Silicon. These guys went a step further by taking apart the nanotubes to obtain a single-atom layer which would show remarkable conductance properties. What does this mean? In theory at least, it is now possible to use this material instead of silicon in computers to obtain 100x faster than the fastest machine that is available today. Now, this is a huge contribution which fully deserves the 1.5 million dollar prize.

Noble Prize stuff - Graphite to Graphene and its nanotube form

"Engineering the engineers" is not an easy task, but one which is required for the advancement of technology and human life. It is not a surprise that governments and research institutes have invested billions of dollars for this sake - with the hope that they would be the pioneer of a breakthrough technology in this knowledge based economy.

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