Do engineers really need to know anything?

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.