Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Engineers and Scientists

I read a provocative article about engineering and science recently. As an engineer it caught my eye because it seems like the word "science" has a more positive connotation than "engineering" does. If there is a big technical achievement, it gets reported as a scientific breakthrough when often it is actually engineering that deserves the credit. Check out the article, from Design News magazine:

"Distinguishing Between Scientists & Engineers" by Henry Petroski

Mr. Petroski starts off with a great example:
"In October 2010, when 33 Chilean miners who had been trapped a half-mile underground for two months were brought safely to the surface, a headline in the Wall Street Journal described the 'rescue formula' as '75 percent science, 25 percent miracle.' In fact, as a participant in the feat was quoted in the story itself, the rescue was '75 percent engineering and 25 percent a miracle.' It was engineers who had designed the advanced drill bit that enabled an access shaft to be driven in record time; it was engineers who designed the rescue capsule that was used to haul the miners out one-by-one; and it was engineers who had designed the ancillary equipment that was necessary to carry out the rescue."

The two terms, science and engineering, are NOT synonymous. They may be close, but they're not the same.

"Aerospace engineer and scientist Theodore von Kármán, who directed the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory at Caltech and was involved in founding NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is credited with formulating a simple distinction between engineers and scientists. In one of its many variant forms, his dictum says that scientists seek to understand what is, while engineers seek to create what never was."

"What distinguishes the two pursuits may be said to be: engineering is the design of new devices and systems that serve a useful purpose that is not met by existing technology. The purest of scientists do not do this; they seek knowledge for its own sake, with no particular application or design in mind."

"Whatever relevant scientific knowledge and understanding are available to help achieve the goal will certainly be welcome, but in the absence of it, engineers forge ahead. Sometimes this means doing science themselves, such as by devising experiments and collecting whatever data might be necessary for design decisions to be made."

There, now that I've gotten that off my chest (thanks, Dr. Petroski!), I feel a lot better. Nothing against scientists, nothing at all, but I am happy and proud to be an engineer. :)