Editorial: Shooting up the rules

Computers don't make mistakes. If they get the wrong answers, it's because they are asked the wrong questions. At least that's what our computer studies teacher drummed into us at school. 'Garbage in, garbage out' he used to say.

It wasn't always easy to stick to this creed in the early years of silicon and space invaders, when calculators, Acorns, BBC Micros and dot matrix printers were to be found only in the locked 'computer rooms' of our schools. Government and corporations were beginning to 'computerise' and when they got it wrong they blamed 'computer error'. But we knew the truth: people made mistakes. The programmers doing the 'VDU in-putting' or unable to read computer printouts made mistakes. Electronic circuits just did what they were told, quickly, efficiently, over and over again, so 2+2 always made 4.

It was never really an absolute truth: environmental factors could, in extraordinary circumstances, make circuits go wrong. Radiation from space could affect flight attendants' calculators, for example. But now circuit sizes have shrunk to the point where designers can no longer ignore all the laws of physics.E&T electronics editor Chris Edwards finds out how electronics engineers are learning to live with the problem of 'variability', in which even the wind outside the lab can affect the circuits, in our cover feature, which starts on p32.

Electronics engineers, of course, are already solving the problem, because that's what engineers do. Perhaps we take it for granted. It's amazing to me that successive engineers have shrunk circuits to such a size to encounter this problem in the first place and, like many problems before, they will crack this one too. At the risk of being too obvious, electronic engineering has changed all our lives and continues to do so. In this issue, we take a look at the next standards in mobiles (p66), the rise of streaming high-definition video (p30) and how high street shops will respond to the rise of online shopping (p18). And it's not just electronic engineering. We look at the latest in power engineering, with our features on pig power (p46) or the latest in solid oxide fuel cells (p50).

Okay, so this is an engineering magazine - you'd expect it to be full of examples of great engineering, wouldn't you? Well, perhaps, but look at the vote the Science Museum in London is running to celebrate its centenary. It's asking the public to vote for its greatest exhibit from a shortlist of ten. The ten are: Newcomen's steam engine; the V2 rocket engine; 1837 electric telegraph device; Stephenson's Rocket; X-ray machine; Model T Ford; penicillin; 1950 Pilot ACE computer; DNA double helix; Apollo 10 capsule. I reckon at least eight of those ten are actually engineering exhibits rather than science. I concede that it's harder to find artefacts for scientific discoveries - an apple for gravity doesn't really work. And the science versus engineering debate isn't very useful anyway. But it does symbolise how engineering has changed our lives more than most people realise because it doesn't always get the credit.

Remember that fact when you read our story on p21, in which futurologist Ian Pearson examines ten predictions for the future. They are wide-ranging and I don't believe them all but I've learnt to give the benefit of the doubt on what extraordinary things engineers can do.

As developments ranging from mobiles to the Web have demonstrated, what people do with the results is much harder to predict. They are so variable.

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