The best books on Engineering

recommended by Ante Shoda

What should a budding engineer—or even an experienced one—read for a better understanding of the science and trade? And how does engineering help make our lives better every day? Ante Shoda, an engineer for Honda Racing in California, recommends the best books for a fundamental understanding of engineering.

Interview by Benedict King

Though it seems obvious, if someone asked me to define engineering, I’m not sure I’d be able to. Could you?

The shortest definition would be that engineering is applied mathematics and physics. That definition can encompass mechanical and aerospace engineering, civil engineering, medical and bio-engineering, financial engineering, economics and many other different applications. Its application is sometimes difficult: abstract maths and physical models are nice in theory, but they have to be used to build things and make our lives better. That’s the job of engineering.

How did you get into engineering? What about it appealed to you—was it seeing nice cars and wanting to build them, or something else?

Like most kids, it started with liking bicycles, motorcycles, fast cars and airplanes—which led to wanting to understand how they worked. You start with using them for fun, but if you’re the least bit mathematically inclined, you’ll get into the mathematics and physics of those machines. That will take you in the direction of engineering.

“Abstract maths and physical models are nice in theory, but they have to be used to build things and make our lives better”

But there was something on top of that for me, which was not just about cars and airplanes and motorcycles. I was always very interested in structures, such as suspension bridges, and wondered: How does a bridge like that actually work? How is it designed? That’s a very important part of engineering; it’s where engineering meets design, or architecture.

Let’s move on to your book choices. The first is The Simple Science of Flight: From Insects to Jumbo Jets by Henk Tennekes. Can you tell me a bit about why you chose this as one of five introductory books?

Perhaps it’s an odd choice for an introductory book, in that it’s not about engineering in general. It focuses just on airplanes. Though it’s about aerospace engineering, the great thing about this book is that it shows the connection between the natural world and the world of engineering. It shows how we can learn from nature.

The author, Henk Tennekes, a Dutch Professor of meteorology and aerospace engineering, talks about insects and birds and how they fly, then tries to find connections with man’s creations. It succeeds in a very beautiful way, and shows how what we have learned from nature translates into how we design and build airplanes.

It doesn’t focus on only one type of airplane—it’s about passenger and transport planes more generally. It’s a very unique attempt to describe the world of engineering without using a lot of equations. It’s a very easy-to-read, light book that beautifully shows one of the main engineering principles ‘form follows function’ connecting natural selection and human-made machines.

Tell us more about that connection. Does it explain why an airplane doesn’t look like a bumblebee?

It does. It nicely explains the point of aircraft design, differentiating between the most efficient way to fly and the most economical way to fly depending on energy consumption, structural properties or the weight of the flying object. For example: why are small, flying objects in nature (like insects) built the way the are? The book then moves on to discussing bigger birds—nature’s design—and transfers this nicely onto human flight. He tells us why a helicopter, for example, looks different from a jumbo jet: everything depends on what the goal of the flying object is.

What is your “envelope” for the flying object? If, for example, your main goal is to transport things, then your flying object will look different from an object whose main goal is to fly very fast, or to carry weapons. This differentiation between goals explains differences seen in nature between different flying objects. A bumblebee doesn’t look the same as a fast flying bird like a sea hawk, or a peregrine falcon, because they have different objectives.

Moving on to the next book, Cosmos by Carl Sagan. Tell us a bit about this one.

This book was written almost 40 years ago by a famous astronomy Professor Carl Sagan from Cornell University. He trained as a biologist and then worked as an astronomy professor—a fact that permeates his story and creates a very multidisciplinary book. This book is more about general science and philosophy, but it also sheds a lot of light on how one needs to approach engineering.

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It explains 14 billion years of the evolution of the universe, a sort of engineering experiment on the largest possible scale. It spans all scales of space and time, describing everything from the largest scales of the universe to the smallest scales of molecules and atoms. It’s a good book for putting everything in perspective. It talks about space travel, and the evolution of the universe as a whole.

It’s also a very optimistic book. It shows how the human race will have to develop in the future and how we’ll have to go to different places.

Does it suggest that engineers will be our salvation–that if we’re going to survive as a species, the solution will come from them?

I don’t think it does quite suggest that, but it does say that engineering will have to be part of our salvation, definitely. Engineering must be part of it, because we will have to find ways to continue to live on this planet. Then, if we want to conquer other planets or other worlds, we will need engineering to help us to go down that path.

But, as I said, this is a multidisciplinary book and also a very philosophical book. It does not put engineering on some kind of pedestal, not at all. That’s why I think it’s helpful for putting things into perspective. Engineering is important, but our future security cannot be left to engineering alone. Sagan gives it the right weight.

The next book up is In Pursuit of the Unknown: 17 Equations That Changed the World by Ian Stewart. 

Like some of the others, this is also not a typical engineering book. It is written by a professor of mathematics from the United Kingdom, and it describes a number of mathematical breakthroughs, their consequences related to engineering, and the practical application of mathematics in machines and other everyday uses. It shows important equations without going too deep into their theoretical justification. Some classical examples are Pythagoras’ theorem, logarithmic equations, differential calculus, Newton’s theory of gravity, Einstein’s relativity and so on. The book shows how these were 17 of the most important equations in history, and how mathematics has contributed to human progress. It’s a great introduction to the underlying principles of engineering.

Can you give us an example of an equation specifically concerned with engineering?

For example, you have something called a wave equation. This particular equation can predict how music is produced by a string instrument. But it can also be used to predict the effect of an earthquake on buildings or other structures. It follows that it allows us to make buildings and bridges that are more resistant to those earthquakes. Interestingly, the same equation is used by oil companies to find oil a few kilometres underground. So, it shows how one relatively simple mathematical equation can have a variety of practical usages.

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Another example from this book is the Black-Scholes equation, which is used by banks all over the world to price financial derivatives—so, for financial engineering. Interestingly, that particular chapter explains how mathematics can be misused, leading to global economic and social consequences.

You don’t need advanced mathematics to enjoy this book. Professor Stewart does a good job in explaining the applied side of those equations without recourse to deep mathematics.

Let’s move on to the next book, Power Speed and Form: Engineers in the Making of the Twentieth Century by David P Billington and David P Billington, Jr., presumably his son.

This is what I would call a typical engineering book. It describes eight breakthrough innovations from the end of the 19th century to the beginning of the 20th century. Those eight innovations are the telephone, electricity, oil refining, the automobile, the airplane, radio, long span bridges and, finally, reinforced concrete.

Those were the eight most important inventions in engineering that enabled the world as we know it today. It addresses technical underpinnings of how we live today, explaining each of these innovations, how they came about and why they happened. It also gives good technical, mathematical explanations, and shows how the models were built for these eight engineering innovations.

Between designing something and building it, you have a very important intermediate stage: modelling. Before you build a design, you have to make sure it really works. You do that with an experimental model. So, you build a model, and either put some loads on the model or try to use it as it will be used later in reality. Over the past 40 or 50 years, more and more of this kind of modelling has been done through computer simulations. This book describes how 100 years ago they didn’t have computers, but they used mainly theoretical models to show that a particular design really would work. It’s all very nicely explained in easy terms—anybody can understand it.

Does it talk about whether these innovations were driven by necessity or whether they were inventions that led to huge changes in the way we live? Does he see them as a push or a pull?

He sees them as a combination of both things. Necessity is a very good motivation for inventing something new, or something better. But this book also puts an emphasis on the profit motive, on the economic incentives that drove these inventions, the idea that we make things not necessarily because it is needed right now, but because it could make our lives more efficient and deliver economic benefits. Thomas Edison famously said “Anything that won’t sell, I don’t want to invent.”

Let’s move on to your last book, Ausgepowert: Das Ende des Olzeitalters als Chance by Marcel Hanggi. What does it mean?

This book is my “dark horse” choice. It’s a book written in the German language, but it’s actually written by a Swiss journalist who is an expert in energy and ecology. It translates as Exploited: the End of the Oil Age as an Opportunity. It’s really a book about how we are using energy to power our lifestyle and what the end of cheap oil will mean. It also describes the limits of growth, going beyond widely understood constraints like the finite level of oil global oil reserves, caps on CO2 emissions and population limits.

First of all, it’s a very sobering book. It’s pessimistic and optimistic at the same time. This is the ultimate engineering book, even though it’s not a typical engineering book. Every engineer should read this book, regardless of whether they are in mechanical engineering or civil engineering or involved in food production. A big part of this book is about the energy used for transportation and for food production. There’s no maths and no physical modelling, but it sets out a very important point of view about where we go from here. It shows in a brilliant way how dependent our society and our way of life is on cheap energy.

“The environmental and energy problems that we face today will not be solved by more efficient technology. Simply swapping out normal lightbulbs for energy-saving bulbs will not do the trick.”

The book is pessimistic because it shows that the environmental and energy problems that we face today will not be solved by more efficient technology. Simply swapping out normal lightbulbs for energy-saving bulbs will not do the trick. On the other hand, it is optimistic, because it shows that it is possible to live as well as we do today—or even better than today—with much lower energy consumption, and that it’s not necessarily a bad thing if cheap energy runs out and we’re left with expensive energy in the future.

Expensive energy may force us to rethink how we use energy and how we employ energy that is available for food production and transportation. It’s an important fact that the book was written in Switzerland; this is not this author’s first book about the environment and energy. It’s a very important topic in the country, and, in fact, the Swiss state paid him to write it. The Swiss are a good example of how a well developed and rich society should be thinking about its future.

Can you give some example of the type of thing you mean?

Take cheap food. In the 2008 global financial crisis, the price of some food staples suddenly got very expensive in certain parts of the world. Many people in poor countries faced starvation. This book shows that the source of the problem was not the high price of food but rather the volatile and sudden jumps in prices. Making food even cheaper will not solve that problem because most of the people who were affected in Africa, Asia and South America were in food producing economies. Cheaper and cheaper food will only make people whose biggest source of income is food production poorer.

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Look at the United States, where human labour in food production is very limited. It’s all automated and based on machines and technology. This practice is profitable because energy is cheap in the US. In the developing world, on the other hand, energy is relatively expensive, and therefore food production is still based on human input. So, making food even cheaper in the United States and transferring that production technology to undeveloped countries will not work: it would risk reducing the standard of living for the people in those developing countries to lower levels than they have today. That’s just one example of how technology is not necessarily the solution to every problem. The problem will be solved by changing the way we employ technology and how much energy we use in things like transportation or food production and so on.

“The history of most new technologies suggests that every important technological innovation does not make the preceding technology obsolete”

I think it can be best illustrated by a simple example. It is generally assumed that if we swap from gasoline cars to electric cars, it’ll be good for the environment, and a big chunk of our energy problems and environmental problems will be solved. This book shows that’s a false expectation, because the history of most new technologies suggests that every important technological innovation does not make the preceding technology obsolete. All technologies continue to exist and continue to consume almost the same amount of energy as before but on the global level the new technologies simply exist on top of the previous ones. So global energy consumption actually goes up and up continuously. That’s true of transportation and why electric cars are no panacea.

So, final question. Does he say anything about how engineers should start rethinking how they work, what they’re trying to optimize in order to produce a low energy world? Or is this book about the limitations of engineering and engineers and, actually, the solution lies with economists or sociologists or politicians?

If there is a solution, it lies with everybody: with social sciences, with economists, with engineers, with scientists, and—whether we like it or not—with politicians. We will all have to change the way we live, and more expensive food does not necessarily mean somebody will not have enough food. He’s arguing for a restructuring. It’s a question of creating greater balance between people who have too much and people who don’t have enough. That will not be solved by engineers. The social part of that question is probably more important.

Engineers can only help. That’s why I said I think it’s a very important fact that this book has been written in Switzerland and has been sponsored by Swiss government. If these ideas were put forward by somebody from eastern Europe or from countries with strong social components like Germany, Italy or France, they would immediately be called communists and socialists. I think Switzerland does not have that baggage from the past and perhaps they can get away with thinking more radically now. This book puts forward some very strong ideas and some very strong opinions, but I don’t think it’s biased.

Interview by Benedict King

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Ante Shoda

Ante Shoda works for Honda Racing in California in the United States. He studied mechanical engineering in Zagreb, Croatia, and the United Kingdom, and started his professional career as a scientist with German National Aerospace Center DLR in Goettingen, Germany. After obtaining his PhD from the Technical University RWTH in Aachen, he went to work in automotive industry, spending time at BMW in Munich, Germany, Magna Steyr in Graz, Austria, and Ferrari in Italy.

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Ante Shoda

Ante Shoda works for Honda Racing in California in the United States. He studied mechanical engineering in Zagreb, Croatia, and the United Kingdom, and started his professional career as a scientist with German National Aerospace Center DLR in Goettingen, Germany. After obtaining his PhD from the Technical University RWTH in Aachen, he went to work in automotive industry, spending time at BMW in Munich, Germany, Magna Steyr in Graz, Austria, and Ferrari in Italy.