Engineer with book

Do engineers really need to know anything?

June 15, 20234 min read

Originally posted: 19 March 2014

I’m not sure how frequently something needs to be repeated before it becomes cliché but there is a saying that I’ve heard so many times and that I’ve even used in class that I think fits, at least in the limited circles I travel in.

They say: “Engineers don’t need to know anything; they just need to know what book to look in.”

Well OK – That’s a little like saying anyone could be a great chef if they have the right cook book, and by extension must make Google the world’s greatest engineer. (

I can tell you that as an engineer you do in fact need to be good at using reference materials, and knowing which book to look in certainly speeds the process. In reality, though, simply owning the books isn’t enough. You need a clear understanding of the fundamental physics of the situation, to know when you are approaching the edges of those laws, when the things you are doing might even expand those edges; and you need to be really good at solving those pesky word problems from middle school.

Einstein was once asked how many feet are in a mile. Einstein’s reply was “I don’t know, why should I fill my brain with facts I can find in two minutes in any standard reference book?”*

As an engineer you will remember the facts that you use often, as to the others, it is sufficient to understand that they exist, how to find them, and how to use them when you need to.


What does ChatGPT think?

I did a little experiment as I was copying this to my new web site...


My Prompt:

You are a hiring manager at a large engineering firm. It has been said that "Engineers don't need to know anything, they just need to know which book to look in" What are your thoughts on this statement and what impact will modern search engines and AIs have on the statement moving into the future?

The Response from ChatGPT (3.5)

As a hiring manager at an engineering firm, I have a different perspective on the statement "Engineers don't need to know anything, they just need to know which book to look in." While it is true that engineers often rely on reference materials and resources to solve complex problems, the statement oversimplifies the role of engineers and undermines the importance of knowledge, skills, and experience in the field.

Engineers require a strong foundation of theoretical knowledge and practical skills to effectively analyze, design, and innovate. Understanding core principles, concepts, and methodologies is essential for engineers to think critically, solve problems creatively, and make informed decisions. The ability to apply knowledge from various domains is crucial in engineering, as many challenges require interdisciplinary approaches.

Furthermore, engineers need to possess a deep understanding of the underlying principles in their respective fields to develop novel solutions, push boundaries, and drive innovation. This level of expertise cannot be solely acquired through referencing books or search engines. Experience and hands-on practice are vital for engineers to develop intuition, judgment, and the ability to adapt to unique situations.

That being said, modern search engines and AI technologies have undeniably revolutionized the way engineers access information and resources. These tools provide instant access to vast repositories of knowledge, technical documents, research papers, and even collaborative platforms where engineers can seek guidance from peers across the globe. This accessibility expedites the process of finding relevant information and empowers engineers to explore new areas, stay updated with the latest advancements, and solve problems more efficiently.

However, while search engines and AI can enhance engineers' ability to find information, they do not replace the need for foundational knowledge and expertise. A search engine can provide answers, but it is up to the engineer to critically evaluate and apply that information appropriately. Engineers must possess the ability to assess the credibility, relevance, and limitations of the resources they find. Moreover, certain aspects of engineering require a deep understanding that may not be easily acquired through a simple search, such as complex mathematical modeling, system-level integration, or conceptual design.

In summary, while modern search engines and AI technologies undoubtedly augment the capabilities of engineers in accessing information and resources, they do not diminish the importance of knowledge and expertise. Engineering is a multidisciplinary field that demands a combination of theoretical understanding, practical skills, critical thinking, and innovation. The ability to apply knowledge effectively and think independently remains crucial for engineers to succeed in addressing complex challenges and pushing the boundaries of what is possible.

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Torbjorn Bergstrom

I’m the eternal optimist and spent many of my early years playing the role of class clown. My wit is dry and always funny to me; I struggle daily with an addiction to sarcasm and have been known to fall off the wagon from time to time.

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