Anyone trying to interest America’s young people in technical careers should read “Applied Minds: How Engineers Think” by Guru Madhavan. Writing with a liveliness that reflects the energized, creative, problem-solving people he talks about, Madhavan, a biomedical engineer, presents a completely engaging survey of what engineers do — and why you wish you could do it, too.
You meet Hugh de Haven, who in 1942 wrote a report on a woman who jumped out of a seventh-floor window, landing on her head — and sustaining less damage than the pine-board roof she broke through. This (and his own survival after an airplane crash) led him to a lifetime of crash-safety studies, whose results included the patent for the three-point seat belt.
And you meet Clarence Saunders, who in 1916 opened a food store with a silly name — Piggly Wiggly — and a revolutionary, efficient design: Instead of asking clerks for products, customers grabbed a basket and collected their own groceries.
You also meet David Koon, an industrial engineer whose daughter’s murder in 1993 — during her abduction she talked to a 911 operator who could not pinpoint her location — led him to learn not only how GPS capability could enhance help lines but also how to fight the political battle to pay for such systems.
There’s a lot more, including the thinking behind the construction of the world’s tallest building, the design of Microsoft Office, the first flip phone, the creation of the Zip code, NASA rockets. Madhavan puts it all in context of what he calls modular systems thinking and says it controls our lives whether we like it or not: Look out an airplane window from four miles up, he says, and you’ll see two systems — the one designed by nature and the one designed by engineers.