An Anthropologist takes on Engineering

I have a pretty complicated relationship with my engineering module.

Though I did maths in 6th Form my undergraduate degree was in anthropology so when I was choosing my MSc modules I hadn’t done any serious maths for over 5 years. But a significant part of what drew me to this course was its interdisciplinary nature and it seemed like a waste to not take advantage of an opportunity to learn some engineering. As well as understanding some technical aspects of renewable energy, I hoped to gain an insight into engineering practices to enable interdisciplinary cooperation*, and the module hasn’t disappointed on either front.

One of the main aims of the module is to enable students to calculate energy and power outputs of different renewable energy sources. (Did you know that energy and power are different? I didn’t!) I, an anthropologist, can now do this! I recently completed a project that required analysis of the power output of solar PV, tidal stream and wind technologies, as well as analysis of various financial measures. In the end, calculating the energy output wasn’t even the hard part.

But as an anthropologist, this module has given me so much more along with that. My confidence with more complex maths has dramatically increased, as well as my ability to think through problems in an engineery way. They like to analyse problems numerically (“logically,” they would say). While I would say, “Look, all the UK solar PV companies are going bust, it’s probably not worth investing in them,” engineers prefer you to “prove it” by working out the maths. By gaining these skills I have also gained an understanding of how they think. I love talking to engineers at interdisciplinary events now, because I have much more common ground with them than other disciplines and can speak their language, to a certain extent.

Not only that, I feel like an engineer. I have been relentlessly mocked for proclaiming myself an engineer in the first week of term but the longer I spend working on engineering, the more true it becomes. It’s like I’ve unlocked a certain kind of freedom of thought that allows me to tackle certain problems differently. For example, a recent Independent article indicated that feeding cows oregano may reduce the methane emissions they produce. Having already idly wondered about harnessing cow farts for energy (revision does funny things to a brain), this article gave me the numbers I needed to start thinking about the problem like an engineer, thus:

A cow weighing 550kg produces between 800-1000 litres of emissions per day. Sure, that’s not all methane, but we’re just ballparking** here so let’s say they produce 800l of methane gas per day. According to Wolfram Alpha, the excellent computational search engine, 800l of methane contains 30MJ of energy, or 8.33kWh. Is that a lot? Would it be worth finding a method to extract the methane?

To answer this, I went on to find out the wattage of our kettle (3kW), timed how long it took to boil 0.5l of water (77 seconds) and worked out that 1 day’s worth of cow farts would boil roughly 130 cups of tea. Plus you’d have the milk all ready.***

The point is, I found joy in recreational problem-solving: finding out information, conducting experiments, performing calculations… All useful skills, regardless of how silly or serious the context is. This process even helped with my degree, as I found out how to convert from joules to kilowatthours while performing my calculations.

Photo 24-05-2016, 02 03 34 (1)

SI units poster in my living room.

That’s not to say there haven’t been countless frustrations along the way. I only did physics to GCSE, putting me at a considerable disadvantage when it comes to understanding the science behind what we’re discussing. My maths is very rusty and I couldn’t tell you how to differentiate, but my solid grounding in algebra has saved me numerous times. I’m not used to working with SI units and producing answers like 3.87 x 106 gives me the heebie-jeebies. But I have a bunch of patient physicist/mathematician/engineer friends, an SI units poster in my living room and a lot of determination to gain as much engineering knowledge as I can.

My engineering exam is coming up on Friday, so we’ll see how I feel about engineering after that. But for now my verdict is that it was definitely the most exhilarating, door-opening module I’ve ever done and I would encourage everyone to see how far outside their disciplinary comfort zone they can push themselves.

*In engineering lectures I tend to take notes on what’s happening, as well as the course content. It’s fascinating! Once an anthropologist, always an anthropologist!
**”Ballparking” figures, or roughly estimating them, is one of an engineer’s favourite pastimes.
***This was a fun thought experiment, but collecting the gas would be a bit of a problem. Compressed methane is highly flammable, not something you’d want near livestock. I am adamant that keeping cows in a methane-extracting biodome could work, but the biggest biodome you can build is around 3 acres, only enough for 2 cow/calf pairs. Since methane rises, could we just put an awning over a field and extract from that? Answers in the comments, please…


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