The Brilliantly Calculating Mind of Engineers

Many moons ago, I came across a piece on Ars Technica by physicist Chris Lee, in which he held forth on the ignorant intellectual snobbery and the lack of social-analysis skills that he felt abounded amongst physcisists and engineers. The person who drew my attention to the piece was technical chap himself, and he agreed completely with Lee’s assessment. A little too completely, I thought.

Despite knowing several ‘perfectly normal engineering peeps’, as a sociologist friend puts it, I found myself agreeing with several of Lee’s general ideas. What I missed, however, was the homegrown perspective. Given the ubiquity of Indian engineers (and science-faculty folks) everywhere, I thought, time was ripe for a brief history of “Why They Are Like This, Only“. So, predictably, I wrote it.

Just last week, the piece was reposted on Facebook, to a certain amount of stirring amongst the company. Yesterday, it prompted a johnny-come-lately engineer buddy of mine to send me a strip from this comic. Which, I hasten to add, I do not in any way, shape or form own, and clicking on the pic will take you to the original posting of it.

Strip from the Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal webcomic.


  1. Although, to be perfectly honest, cheeses with a light dressing, topped with chopped olives and crushed cashews should be quite delicious. Chap hasn’t developed tastebuds yet.

  2. And to be fair, this “I game the system! I king!” attitude is not limited to western engineers. Amongst certain Indian(s)/(communities), it is a cultural imperative.

  3. Gaming by weight buffets is a time honoured tradition – don’t need to be an engineer for that. The funniest is at Mongolian bbqs (nothing Mongolian about them) where they give you a tiny bowl to pile all meat, veggies and noodles. There are people I know who’ve evolved this into an art form – piling up a mountain of ingredients without topping over. The ones that piss me off are the Brazilian buffets that charge a uniform $9 per pound for salad and cooked food – so yeah, game away!

  4. Swati, I’m one of those people — the art of balancing chicken, prawns, white fish, pepperoni, tofu, broccoli, babycorn, chinese mixed greens and other assorted veggies in those tiny bowls without the mixture toppling over/spilling is a delicate one indeed 😀

  5. Desi and American engineers are distinct primate species. Indian engineering entrance exams filter for high g factor and the “grind” — focus and perseverance. Skipping those tests is hardly an option for any Indian with greater than average g. 17-18 year old Indians become engineers as soon as they clear those tests when their self-awareness is low and worldview largely unformed.

    SAT selects for high g as well, but not so much for the “grind”. More importantly, even after clearing SAT and getting admitted to a top American undergrad program, the option to go for an engineering major as opposed to pre-med, natural sciences or business is more free will and less systemic. Arguably, those decisions to go for a hard engineering major are taken by individuals who are slightly older and a lot more self-aware.

    What drives American undergrads to pursue engineering majors is primarily a strong natural desire not only to understand how “stuff” works — the “nerd” mindset — but also to break old stuff and build new stuff — the “hacker” mindset. The opportunism of making money and/or a safe career is a distinct second to this desire, mainly because so many other less demanding majors can promise the same.

    The “nerd” mindset correlates well with high g and IQ, but the “hacker” mindset does not and might even be negatively correlated to some extent. Both desi and American engineers love to optimize and do optimize well. But this difference in who they are explains the differences in which “objective functions” they are optimizing towards and which “constraints” they are imposing upon themselves.

  6. 1. Such luxuries as not thinking about money and stability is only idiomatic to socities that are affluent.
    2. What makes you suggest these correlations?
    3. What’s with the non-optimized, gratuitous use of “quotes”?


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