Wellbeing is about health, happiness, contentedness, prosperity or more generally human flourishing. Wellbeing is something we all want.
Medical engineering is largely about wellness – from the medical chemical engineering of drug delivery systems, the medical electronics of pacemakers and scanners, the structural, civil, electrical and mechanical engineering of buildings such as hospitals or providing essential transport like ambulances or robots for brain surgery or simply taking goods around the building or for the exchange of information via wireless networks. The medical and engineering professions have a lot in common and a lot to offer each other because both are done by people for people to improve lives.
There are many factors in wellness – exercising, eating well, getting enough sleep, controlling stress, enjoying good company, finding time to relax, having safe places to live and work, reflecting, creating, making liking your job, safely disposing waste safely and paying attention to signs of illness, having access to help when needed and many other things too. Engineers contribute to almost all of these in some way. We can only mention some of them from supplying our basic physiological needs for eating, drinking and disposing of waste to heart pacemakers and MRI scanners.
Farming is a kind of environmental engineering. We change our habitats in specific ways so we can do something useful – produce food. The idea is to eat well, the reality is eating well. We clear away vegetation, we till the soil and change our relationship with plants and animals mostly by domesticating them. One of the earliest farm tools was the plough – which has evolved from a simple bent stick to a machine with reversible multiple mouldboards towed behind a tractor manipulated by sophisticated hydraulic systems.
The supply of drinking water and sanitary ways of dealing with human waste products has been an ever present engineering challenge and crucial to health. Treating waste water and water from all natural sources is part of public health engineering. The engineers configure the energy of the flows for a useful purpose – to supply drinking water, to prevent or control flooding and to treat wastewater.
Civil engineers build and maintain the infrastructure of the reservoirs, dams and storage of water. Chemical engineers are responsible for water quality. Mechanical engineers design, install and maintain all of the pumps and many other pieces of mechanical plant, machinery and equipment. Much of the equipment is powered by electricity. Electrical engineers design, build, install, manage and maintain power stations to generate the electricity for the national grid. They provide electrical motors and generators and lots of other electrical equipment too. Electronic engineers provide the instrumentation used to monitor and control the flow of water. Computer systems are designed, installed and maintained by computer engineers to control the flow of information necessary to keep the water flowing.
One of the most influential engineers of the Victorian era was Joseph Bazalgette because he designed and supervised the building of London’s sewers. The Thames was an open sewer with no fish or other wildlife – it stank and cholera was a real problem. Yet still in 2017 four in ten people in the world today have no toilet. They must do their business instead on roadsides, in the bushes, wherever they can. Human faeces in water supplies contribute to one in ten of the world’s communicable diseases. A child dies from diarrhoea – usually brought on by faecal-contaminated food or water – every 15 seconds. Its nothing short of scandelous.
Chemical and bioengineers develop implantable micro-chips and polymer gels that can release drugs gradually as well as other methods for delivering drugs, engineering tissue and harnessing nanotechnology. They work at the interface between molecular sciences (chemistry, biology and medicine) and large-scale engineering.
One of the great modern medical engineering success is the heart pacemaker. It’s story is based on electro-therapy – using electricity to stimulate human tissue. There were seven uneven phases in its development. First the ancient Greeks made a link between pulse rates and fainting. Second it was realised that electricity is important to the working of the heart. Third from that understanding came the electrocardiogram. Fourth through that machine it became possible to measure and record the heartbeat in some detail. Fifth as a consequence the first pacemakers were made. Sixth they were adapted to make them wearable and seventh they were implanted in the human body.
We humans are social animals – communication is a vital part of our lives. We have needs and desires and we seek to meet them. We are limited in size and body strength and vulnerable to the hazards of the natural world. Yet our big brains provide us with the ingenuity to flourish but also imbue us with a sense of wonderment and curiosity to find understanding, meaning, worth and purpose in our existence. Everywhere people find meaning by striving to improve the human situation by making life less disagreeable, more pleasant and more comfortable and more natural. Some do it by helping people to be healthy and curing them of disease. Some do it by making artefacts that make life easier or more meaningful. Most of us find answers in a mixture of all of these meanings and others as well. That is why scientists can be deeply religious, atheists can be very good doctors and clergy can be military chaplains.
Art and craft illuminate us and enrich our emotional experiences. They impact on our social wellbeing, cohesion, our health our educational system and our economy. Art comes with many different forms and structures of matter such paint on canvas, carving of wood or stone. But they also can be large metal structures like the Kelpies in Scotland which required a significant engineering input to design and build. Before the Renaissance art, craft, engineering and architecture were one – the separation came only later. During the Renaissance patrons began to realise that artisans, who had always worked under the direction of guilds or the church, were not only skilled technicians but also creative thinkers, discoverers and inventors. As our scientific understanding grew so the separation between engineering and architecture grew too. Engineering is a key part of human wellbeing.