“Movie science” is often so ludicrous (Armageddon, 2012, The Core) that it gets used as a teaching tool: students are asked to identify the oops! moments in order to learn correct science. On occasion, though, fiction captures the work of STEM professionals with (reasonable) accuracy—and makes their jobs look pretty cool to boot. We asked Jenn Stroud Rossmann, our resident scientist and author of the series An Engineer Reads a Novel, to walk us through the movies, books, and TV shows most beloved by real-life engineers.
1. Apollo 13
For pure rolling-up-sleeves-and-getting-it-done ingenuity, it’s hard to beat the book and movie retellings of true tech stories, especially those involving the space program. Apollo 13 may be the urtext here. It’s our Top Gun, serving as recruitment video and litmus test for suitability to engineering. If your heart rate surges when a box of parts and widgets is poured onto the table, and a team is told that it’s their job to use those parts to “fit a square peg into a round hole,” you might be an engineer. If the back of your neck would be tingling even if the stakes weren’t life-or-death, come sit by me.
2. From the Earth to the Moon
That same spirit of ingenuity echoes in the “LEM” episode of From the Earth to the Moon, a miniseries produced by Apollo 13 star Tom Hanks. A manager’s failure to “see” the engineers’ vision motivates an all-nighter to prepare a persuasive mock-up. With a jauntily jazzy soundtrack, it’s an energizing scene, in which prototyping is a cool shindig and the underdog techies teach those blazer-wearing managers a lesson.
3. Rocket Boys / October Sky
You’ll get similar chills—or at least an anthropologist’s sense that you’re observing young engineers in their native habitats—by reading Homer Hickam’s Rocket Boys or watching Hollywood’s version of his story, October Sky. These portray the wonder that drives engineers’ design-build-test cycle; the progressive refinements as we repeat the process iteratively; the thrill of each small success along the way.
4. The Right Stuff
Tom Wolfe’s kinetic 1979 retelling of the Mercury Seven astronauts valorizes them as modern cowboys, hyper-masculine rule-breaking risk-takers. (Wolfe didn’t have to work too hard to portray Chuck Yeager this way; he really did break the sound barrier the morning after he’d been thrown from a horse and broken a rib.) The engineers who enabled the Seven’s heroism are not fleshed out as characters, nor particularly valued as heroes. Their work is invisible except for the moments when the astronauts poke fun at it, insisting that their capsule needs a window and that they must be pilots and not simply projectiles in the early prototypes.
The engineers in the film version (1983) are humorless guys in white coats, and like the astronauts, they’re men. No mention in this version of the story of the hidden figures (see below) whose calculations enabled orbital success, or the way female seamstresses used technology from Playtex bras to make the astronauts’ spacesuits. Alas, this erasure of others’ contributions—and celebration of a narrow kind of masculinity—is a fairly accurate depiction of 20th-century engineering culture. (We’re working on the 21st century now, but as I mentioned, these things are iterative.)
5. Hidden Figures
Margot Lee Shetterly’s book and the film version (both 2016) tell a true but rarely told part of the space race story. It’s a wonderful corrective to the Tom Wolfe vision of an achievement “ziggurat” built only by macho white guys. What I loved most was the quietly revolutionary way the author and the filmmakers showed women being good with their hands: Dorothy making adjustments to her car’s starter; Mary’s intuition for a better way to build a module to withstand reentry. If The Right Stuff made you want to be an engineer despite—or to spite—the narrowness of its “hero” definition, Hidden Figures corrects the record.
6. The Rocketeer
It’s worth noting that all this space race heroism was fueled by competition with the Soviet Union. The wonder of space exploration that had inspired Jules Verne and rocket pioneers like Robert Goddard got inextricably intertwined with international politics. The Rocketeer, a 1982 comic later made into a movie (1991), features a heroic engineer in an earlier moment in history: a barnstorming pilot whose mechanical dexterity helps him fly his jetpack in circles around the Nazis. During the Cold War, the successful launch of Sputnik by the Soviets spurred American technological innovation (with an assist from repatriated Germans like Wernher von Braun) and a surge in STEM enrollments. By retelling these stories, we’re baking both the wonder and the competitiveness into subsequent generations of engineers.
7. The Martian
I’ve written here before about Andy Weir’s astronaut hero in in The Martian, Mark Watney: an engineer/botanist who never met a life-threatening dilemma he couldn’t analyze and solve through his technical skills. Watney doesn’t just live in his tech silo, he fortifies the walls and tricks it out with custom HVAC. While his engineering skills are admirable and his resilience heroic, Watney is more focused on problem-solving, tinkering, and computations than he is on human emotion or introspection. Again, I’m not saying this is an egregiously inaccurate portrayal of an engineer, but it’s noteworthy that the movie version of the story gave him a moment to speak to parents and fleshed out his human connections with the crew who left him for dead on Mars. Watney’s driven to survive, but it sure would be nice to know why.
8. Flight of the Phoenix
Another example of engineers as problem-solvers is Elleston Trevor’s novel Flight of the Phoenix, twice now retold by Hollywood. After a plane crash in the desert, the aeronautical engineer Stringer leads the survivors in building a new aircraft from the wreckage. Trevor illustrates both heroic problem-solving and the challenges of collaboration, in the context of the classic “man v. nature” plot, as the desert proves nearly as inhospitable as the Martian landscape is to Mark Watney. “Here was a plane half-built and it could save their lives; but they stood bickering. This was the desert, out to kill in one of its countless ways: reducing a man in its heat, shriveling him and taking away his dignity, giving him water again to send him in search of what he had lost: his pride.”
9. The Invention of Hugo Cabret / Hugo
The young hero of Brian Selznick’s wonderful The Invention of Hugo Cabret (later Scorsese’s film Hugo), on the other hand, uses his mechanical inventiveness to connect. Hugo is “good with his hands,” inclined to repair watches and other machines, and he designs and builds his own automaton in order to maintain a connection with his dead father.
Mechanical engineers make extremely valuable sidekicks for heroes in need of inventive, sometimes deadly gadgets: James Bond’s Q and Batman’s Lucius Fox design clever devices, and seem to be charmed by their own ingenuity. They’ve designed these gadgets not merely for the weaponry or protection they provide our ostensible hero, but for the pure pleasure of invention. I feel you, gentlemen.
We come now to two special cases where the gadget maker is the hero. Both are influential; both are accurate if somewhat aspirational portrayals of engineers. The first, TV’s MacGyver, was a government agent who could get himself out of any jam with the creative application of whatever was at hand—duct tape, a paperclip, and his own cleverness.
11. Iron Man
The second, Tony Stark, or Iron Man, is the reigning “engineering hero” in pop culture. With the vision and chutzpah of Elon Musk, and the louche charisma of Robert Downey, Jr., he is the unchallenged star of Marvel’s Avengers.
But Tony Stark is “problematic.” He’s brought his old-school toxic masculinity and his astonishing self-confidence into a nominally collaborative environment. My problem with this is not that it’s unrealistic or something that would never happen in an engineering design team. My problem with this is that he makes it seem cool.
What a welcome palate cleanser, then, is Jillian Holtzmann, a “glorious weirdo” and an engineer who builds the tools that the 2016 Ghostbusters team uses to save the world from paranormal bad guys. She’s a skilled designer who refines and improves her devices after she creates them; she’s also quirky, funny, loyal, and warm. Thank you, Kate McKinnon, for this gift to us all. I submit that while Tony Stark is a late-model 20th-century engineering hero, with last century’s biases and chauvinism in his veins, Holtzmann is a model for the 21st.
13. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
Engineering is a collaborative enterprise, and often a social one. All these lone geniuses in basement lairs, demonstrating new tech to Bonds and Batmen, don’t show us the power of design teams integrating the ideas of a diverse group of thinkers. One neat example of collaboration is Alan Moore’s comic book series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which nods to the visionary Jules Verne as well as to the classic mad scientist who serves as his own subject, Edward Hyde / Henry Jeckyll.
14. Cat’s Cradle
In his novels, especially Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut nails the asocial arrogance of a certain type of scientist/engineer. His Felix Hoenikker, a Nobel laureate who helped develop the atomic bomb, is more comfortable with scientific abstraction than with human interaction—particularly if the human is his own progeny. Cat’s Cradle describes the development and exploitation of Ice-9, a technology designed by scientists who hadn’t given much thought to its potential weaponization. This is a cautionary tale, and a very funny one—it’s Vonnegut, after all. In his 1969 speech to physicists and engineers in the American Physical Society, Vonnegut described his inspiration as an “old-fashioned scientist who isn’t interested in people.” (I’m looking at you, Mark Watney.)
15. The Intuitionist
The redoubtable Colson Whitehead has a powerful message about engineering methodology and values in The Intuitionist. His heroine, Lila Mae Watson, is an intuitive elevator inspector, whose gut feelings about the mechanical system’s robustness are challenged by a competing school of “Empiricists,” who use more traditional instrument-based analysis. I believe Whitehead is warning technology developers to broaden their toolbox, listen to different voices, and welcome alternative approaches. There is a tendency among “traditional” engineers to dismiss as “soft skills” the talents of interpersonal communication, empathy, and other attributes many educators tend to outsource to other departments on campus. As someone who believes engineers are more effective when they integrate those skills into their technical expertise—erasing the boundary between “hard” and “soft” skills—I admire Whitehead’s intuitionists.
16. A Bug’s Life
I have a special place in my heart for Flik, the underconfident and underappreciated inventor-hero of Pixar’s A Bug’s Life. Flik desperately wants to use his skills and ideas to improve the lives of others, and many of his ideas fall flat; he has none of Tony Stark’s swagger. But he is an inspiring leader without bullying his team. His inventions are also most successful when they serve the whole colony (such as a grain harvester that is adopted at the film’s end). Many of my students initially claim Tony Stark as their “engineering hero,” as once I claimed MacGyver, but it only takes one team project for them to appreciate the Flik model.