When the School of Engineering redesigned its website in 2008, the occasion provided an opportunity to throw open a door into the Institute. “Ask an Engineer” came before Facebook got big and before most people knew the word “tweet” as anything but a bird sound. It was founded on the simple idea that people could ask MIT questions and someone would answer them. Now the feature — which can be found at engineering.mit.edu/ask — is restarting this month after a two-year hiatus.
Since its launch, Ask an Engineer has generated approximately 4,300 questions from the public. These have come from nearly every country in the world, and from people of all ages and backgrounds.
Once the answer to a clue in The New York Times' Saturday crossword puzzle, Ask an Engineer seeks to unravel the mysteries of engineering — from the mundane (“Why is a bicycle easier to control when it’s moving?”) to the highly complex (“Are Santa’s reindeer used for propulsion or navigation?”) for anyone who wants to ask a relatively pithy question.
Among the most popular in the library of existing questions are “What’s the difference between AC and DC?” “How many solar panels do I need to put on my house to become energy independent?” and the classic “What’s the difference between a motor and an engine?” (The last of these was actually answered by a literature professor.)
Ask an Engineer publishes a new entry once a week during the academic year. And although the columns only address a tiny fraction of the questions received, editors always welcome new questions (especially the ones asked by kids).
The first query with the relaunch: “Is it possible to make a Batman suit?”