“Engineering is not the handmaiden of physics any more than medicine is of biology”


What is science? And how is it different from engineering? The two disciplines are closely related and the differences seem subtle at first, but science and engineering ultimately have different goals.

A scientist attempts to gain knowledge about the underlying structure of the world using systematic observations and experimentation. Scientists are experts in dealing with doubt and uncertainty. As the great Richard Feynman pointed out: “When a scientist doesn’t know the answer to a problem, he is ignorant. When he has a hunch as to what the result is, he is uncertain. And when he is pretty darned sure of what the result is going to be, he is in some doubt” [1]. The body of science is a collection of statements of varying degrees of certainty, and in order to allow progress, scientists need to leave room for doubt. Without doubt and discussion there is no opportunity to explore the unknown or discover new insights about the structure and behaviour of the world.

In the same manner, the role of the engineer is to explore the realm of the unknown by systematically searching for new solutions to practical problems. Engineering is less about knowing (or not knowing), and more about doing; it is about dreaming how the world could be, rather than studying how it is. Engineers rely on scientific knowledge to design, build and control hardware and software, and therefore apply scientific insights to devise creative solutions to practical problems.

I bring up this seemingly superfluous topic because even seasoned journalists can confuse, perhaps unwillingly, the differences between the two endeavours. This article in the Guardian about the recent landing of Philae on Comet 67P refers to the great success of “scientists” on multiple occasions, but fails to give due credit to “engineers” by referring to their role only once. So, is landing a machine on an alien body hurtling through space a scientific or an engineering achievement?

There is certainly no straightforward answer to this question. Both scientists and engineers were indispensable in the success of the Rosetta program. However, in paying credit to the fantastic achievement of engineers involved in this space endeavour, I will leave you with this brief letter by three University of Bristol professors, that so poetically captures the essence of engineering:

Landing Philae on Comet 67P from the Rosetta probe is a fantastic achievement (One giant heartstopper, 14 November). A tremendous scientific experiment based on wonderful engineering. Engineering is the turning of a dream into a reality. So please give credit where credit is due – to the engineers. The success of the science is yet to be determined, depending on what we find out about the comet. Engineering is not the handmaiden of physics any more than medicine is of biology – all are of equal importance to our futures.

– Emeritus professor David Blockley, Professor Stuart BurgessProfessor Paul Weaver, University of Bristol

 

References

[1] “What Do You Care What Other People Think?: Further Adventures of a Curious Character” by Richard P. Feynman. Copyright (c)1988 by Gweneth Feynman and Ralph Leighton.

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