Differentiate Between Scientists & Engineers

Published On: August 17, 2014By


One of my pet peeves is to see an engineer identified as a scientist, or an engineering achievement described as a scientific one. It happens all the time in the news media.

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 most generous way to excuse the headline writer for substituting “science” for “engineering” is to assume that he thought that the terms were synonymous. Headlines obviously have to fit a limited space and so shorter words are often favored over longer ones. But there is also another, less sanguine explanation for the substitution: newspaper people seem to associate scientists and science with positive accomplishments and engineers and engineering with negative ones. Thus, when the space race was young, it was common to read in the newspaper a successful rocket launch described as a scientific achievement and an unsuccessful one as an engineering failure.

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.

This is a compelling dichotomy, and one that an engineer/scientist with the background and experience of von Kármán was in a perfect position to formulate. 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.

Such individuals pursue science for science’s sake, in much the way that some artists engage in art for art’s sake. If such scientists engage in design at all, it is through the formulation of hypotheses and the concoction of experiments to test them. Such activity may be useful to scientists and the scientific enterprise, but it does not necessarily benefit the larger society.

Engineers, on the other hand, are most directly doing engineering when they are engaged in the design of something for some particular purpose that does benefit society. 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.

A classic example of this involves the Wright brothers and their pursuit of powered flight. In working toward their goal, they contacted the Smithsonian Institution seeking whatever scientific literature was available, but they found very little in the field of what we today know as aerodynamics. Among the information they sought was scientific knowledge that would guide them in determining what profile to give a propeller. In the absence of that essential information, they conducted their own goal-specific wind tunnel experiments in order to proceed with the engineering design.

Although, in their purest form, engineering and science may be distinct endeavors, in many cases they are hybrid activities. In practice, engineering and science often work in partnership: Engineers exploit scientific principles and discoveries, while scientists rely on engineering and technology for sophisticated instruments and devices. This is certainly the case in high-tech fields such as microelectronics and nanotechnology. It is also necessary in the design and development of particle accelerators. Some students of science and technology even go so far as to say that without engineering advances in measuring instruments and detection devices, science itself could not advance.

Unfortunately, as with the Chilean mine rescue, all too often it is science — rather than the engineering that really made the miracle possible — that grabs the headlines.

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