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Discovery Channel Seeks A Top Engineer

Now that reality shows are all the rage, I can easily picture some kind of built-it challenge carried out in a well-equipped design lab.

Writing a blog attracts many kinds of responses, some of which are more interesting than others. A few days ago I got an email from someone at an outfit called Pilgrim Productions. Turns out they are looking for cast members for a new reality show, and the reason they contacted me, I suppose, is because the reality show has the tentative title of “Top Engineer.” This fact filled me with mixed emotions, and while poetry is allegedly the best way to express mixed emotions, I will forego any attempts at verse and try to say how I feel in ordinary prose.

Part of me is glad to see this. A few years ago the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, my 300,000-member professional society, sponsored a discussion of how to get a popular TV show going whose theme would be connected with engineering. This was back when most TV shows were still scripted, and so the ideas that came out were pretty feeble, along the lines of “My Three Sons” only we follow Fred MacMurray to his engineering office instead of staying home.

But now that reality shows are all the rage, I can easily picture some kind of built-it challenge carried out in a well-equipped design lab. The Discovery Channel has procured the cooperation of an outfit called WET, which makes fancy servo-controlled fountains for places like Dubai, so they probably have plenty of toys in their labs to do fun things with. That’s the good news.

The bad news is, I recently had a small personal experience with the way TV deals with intellectually challenging concepts, and I am not optimistic about how that aspect of engineering is going to fare on the small screen. And face it, engineering of any sophistication has to involve some intellectually challenging concepts. What happened was that I agreed to be interviewed for a TV show called “Weird or What?”

Outside the U. S. it’s hosted by William Shatner, but some legal tussle or other prevents it from being shown in the fifty states. So sometime last fall, those of you reading this in certain English-speaking countries might have had the privilege of seeing yours truly talking about ball lightning, which is a current research topic of mine.

As is always the case, they taped far more of me than they used, and I expected that. I even rigged up a demo to show them that small burning spheres of liquid silicon looks sort of like ball lightning, I made a joke on camera that was so funny the cameraman laughed, and I tried to be as serious and clear as possible when they asked me specific questions. The silicon didn’t fit into their narrative, and as for the joke, all I can figure is that the only person on that show who is allowed to be funny is William Shatner. And how funny he is, I will allow the unbiased viewer to decide.

What they used me for was one side of a conflict between wild-and-crazy theories of a certain incident on a Canadian island in the 1960s, and the “sober-scientist” view. I played the sober scientist, and they found some other folks with interesting backgrounds to propose the wild-and-crazy theories. And believe me, when I saw the final DVD of the show, I was halfway embarrassed even to be seen in the same segment with some of those people, even though I was presented as saying reasonable, scientifically-based things that countered their wackiness.

I shouldn’t have been surprised, though. TV has to have conflict, movement, and surprises, or its viewers fall asleep. Sometimes they fall asleep anyway, but the kind of thing I give to my students every day in the lecture room would not make good TV, unless you could give all the viewers a grade for comprehension at the end. And the sponsors wouldn’t like that.

Judging by some of the legalese on the Pilgrim Production website and the casting call, they are not looking for your standard-issue behind-the-keyboard type of engineer, which, for better or worse, describes most engineers today. They want “visual effects experts, accomplished home shop machinists, contractors and engineers with backgrounds in electrical, civil, structural, or mechanical engineering.”

And in all caps near the bottom we find this interesting section: “As part of your participation in and/or in connection with the program, you will engage in activities that may be considered dangerous, including without limitation activities involving electrical and hydraulic equipment, power tools and machinery, heavy objects, combustibles, and other potentially hazardous materials and fire.” I like that “and fire” at the end. Some legal intern probably put that in.

I can also tell you this. If you are physically unappealing, without being so ugly that it’s funny, you probably won’t get in either. For a TV show designed merely to entertain, that’s not so bad, but it’s too bad that TV is so heavily involved in the way we choose politicians today. If you look at a photo album of congressmen from the pre-TV era, you will notice that a good many of them, including some of the greatest ones, were simply not much to look at. In particular, Abraham Lincoln, whose birthday we celebrated yesterday, was described not entirely inaccurately as homely as a baboon. He never would have made it if they had had TV in 1860.

So I wish the best to the producers of “Top Engineer” and hope that the image of engineering which emerges from their labors bears at least some slight resemblance to what real engineers really do most of the time. If they do their job right, the show will be fun to watch, nobody will get killed (although it will look like someone might be), and maybe some young people watching will get the idea that engineering is fun as well as remunerative, and it certainly can be both. But be forewarned: most engineers aren’t that good-looking.

Sources: The best rundown on what Pilgrim Productions is looking for can be found at their website, If you’re interested, check it out soon because their deadline for submitting applications is March 7.

Karl Stephan has worked in the industry as a consulting engineer. He currently teaches college-level engineering courses at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas.