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Byron Jennings | TRIUMF | Canada

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Science and Engineering: vive la Différence

This essay was motivated by a question from an engineering colleague. It would be presumptuous to say “friend,” as scientist and engineers are in a state of “friendly” rivalry, however, not to the extent as with arts. I once saw a sign in an engineering department hallway that read: Friends do not let friends study arts. Be that as it may, my colleague’s question was why scientists do not show the same order in all their work as they show in writing papers. That question I will attempt to answer in this essay.

Engineering is far older than science, being perhaps the second oldest profession, dating back at least to the building of the pyramids (Imhotep from the 27th century BCE is the oldest named engineer) and Stonehenge and probably back to when the first club was engineered.  Stonehenge is amazing as it was probably built without the documentation that is the hallmark of modern engineering practice. Unfortunately, that means we do not know what the initial requirements[1] were and this has led to much futile speculation as to its purpose.

Science and engineering are sibling disciplines, frequently mentioned together and have much in common. The main similarity is that they both deal with the observable universe and are judged by their ability to make correct predictions regarding its behaviour. For example, that the Higgs boson will be found at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) or that the building will not collapse in an earthquake. Secondarily they use similar techniques, placing high importance on analytic reasoning, to the extent that Asperger’s syndrome is sometimes called the engineer’s disease. The relation between Asperger’s syndrome and engineers or scientists may be an urban myth but it does indicate the relation of extreme analytic thought to both science and engineering. The solution to problems in both relies on the same problem solving skills, analytic thinking and mathematics. Do not let anyone tell you that either does not require a high degree of intellectual activity.

Science and engineering rely on each other. Behind every engineering project is a great deal of science, from the basic understanding of Newtonian mechanics in the building of a bridge to the advanced materials science in the construction of a cell phone. Actually, the cell phone is a good example of all the science needed: it depends on Newtonian mechanics (the construction of the cell phone towers), quantum mechanics (the operation of the transistors), classical electromagnetism i.e. Maxwell’s equations (the propagation of the signal from the tower to the cell phone), materials science (almost all the cell phone itself), and general and special relativity (the GPS timing that is necessary in some cell phone technologies).

Equally, science is beholden to engineering. From simple things like the buildings that house scientific equipment to complicated things like the ATLAS detector at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). Making a building may seem simple but, as I see with the new ARIEL building at TRIUMF, nothing is simple and even something as basic as a laboratory building relies on engineering expertise. The ATLAS detector is another story. Its size and complexity are a marvel of engineering virtuosity. Back to TRIUMF, the IEEE has recognized the TRIUMF cyclotron, commissioned in 1974 and the main driver for much of TRIUMF’s science program, as an Engineering Milestone. Even the slide rule I used back in ancient history as an undergraduate[2] was an engineering achievement.

Despite the close relationship between science and engineering the two are different. The difference can be summarized in this statement: “In engineering you do not start a project unless you know the answer while in science you do not start a project if you know the answer.” Engineering is based on everything being predictable; you do not start building a bridge unless you know you can complete it. In science, the purpose of a project is to answer a question to which the answer is currently unknown. For example, if the properties of the Higgs boson were known, it would not have been necessary to build the LHC. Good engineering practice is based on order but at the center of science is chaos. We are exploring the unknown; great discoveries can come from serendipity. In science, something not working as expected can lead to the next big breakthrough. In engineering, something not working as expected can lead to the bridge collapsing. Advances in science are frequently due to creativity, not following rules.

This difference in perspective leads to very different cultures in the two disciplines. The engineer is much more concerned with process and following procedure. The scientist with following up his most recent hunch—after all, it could lead to a Nobel Prize.  Engineering versus science: order versus creative chaos. This is clearly an oversimplification as there is no clean separation between engineering and science, but it is a good indication of the divergence between the two mindsets. Thus, although engineering and science are closely related and indeed intertwined, the two, in their heart of hearts, are very different; engineering uses science in order to build and science uses engineering in order to explore.

Additional posts in this series will appear most Friday afternoons at 3:30 pm Vancouver time. To receive a reminder follow me on Twitter: @musquod.


[1] Project management jargon alert: requirements used in technical project management sense.

[2] HP produced the first pocket calculator when I was an undergraduate student.

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