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Want to Engineer Real Change? Don't Ask a Scientist

Zhigang Suo's picture

I’m at a meeting in DC.  The speaker now is Henry Petroski.  The theme of his lecture is on the different roles of science and engineering.  Here is the opening paragraph of his piece in The Washington Post early this year. 

"We will restore science to its rightful place," President Obama declared in his inaugural address. That certainly sounds like a worthy goal. But frankly, it has me worried. If we want to "harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories," as Obama has decreed, we shouldn't look to science. What we need is engineering.”


From my quick look, it seems to me that Dr Petroski may be overemphasising the dichotomy between engineering and science. It is true that synthesis is the domain of engineering, but ultimately the products produced by good engineering depend on science, both fundamental and purely empirical, some of which depends on scientific research done by engineers.

I find Petroski's examples in particular a bit much. It is true that some inventions, such as the steam engine, precede the science we now use to design them, like thermodynamics. But thermodynamics is one of the branches of science really pioneered by engineers which has let us create many, many things now that we can use thermodynamics. Innovation might be one step ahead of science, but it's not usually many steps ahead, so it is important that the pace of science keep up.

Another example was of the Wright brothers, that they did not wait for a sophisticated textbook. This seems strange to me. Sophisticated books are not somehow limited to science over engineering. And besides, the Wright brothers were inventors, not engineers.

Science and engineering are not the same thing, but there's a lot of crossover. Cutting edge engineering is sometimes confused in name with engineering, and indeed often involves people with both a background in science and engineering combining to perform tasks. Just because lay people often don't know how to use these terms differently and may use the term "science" to refer to technological development, I don't think it's fair to assume engineers are really being excluded here.


Then again, what do I know?

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