In 1955 while addressing the National Academy of Sciences Richard Feynman stated "Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty." As usual, Feynman's statement was spot on, and holds true decades later. In his famous "Plenty of Room at the Bottom" lecture Feynman talked about what we now call nanotechnology, and all the different applications. Here I am, half a century later, working "at the bottom" and living in a world of uncertainty. I hope to share some of the exciting discoveries at the nanoscale and explain how they apply to my passion of biotechnology- as well as the everyday world. Learn more about Nicholas Fahrenkopf
My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.
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I’m a student at the College of Nanoscale SCIENCE and ENGINEERING (emphasis mine). While we’re clearly not the only college of any kind of science AND engineering, I can’t help but reflect on what unlikely bedfellows such a joint college creates. What follows is an immense amount of opinion and impressions that I get.
My undergraduate degree was from a College of Arts & Sciences. And yes, artists and scientists are strange bedfellows too. Anyways, my undergraduate training was as a scientist. To me, that meant the scientific method. It meant asking questions about the laws of nature. WHY does something happen? What drives a phenomenon we observe? My University was once a teaching college with a Latin motto that translates to “Knowledge for its own sake and for the sake of teaching.” To me that meant, and still means, we want to know “things” for the sake of knowing them. A secondary purpose is to know those things in order to pass them along to other people. It’s like the old Newton quote “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” So as a scientist, we learn, discover and know things… for the sake of knowing them and showing others.
My University, however, does not have a formal engineering program, whose members would likely laugh at such foolishness. The college of nanoscale science and engineering is the closest we have and after 3 years in this college as a graduate student, I developed a different ("engineering") view of things. I see engineering challenges, and the immense amount of know-how that goes into solving those problems. It isn’t a bunch of second rate scientists that solve these problems. It is a set of first rate thinkers that just happen to think and work differently.
So, in my mind scientists and engineers think, work, and problem solve differently. Scientists want to know WHY something happens. HOW it happens. Their motivation is just that- they want to know the how and why. They might spend more of their time devising elegent experiments to prove or disprove a hypothesis. In contrast, my impression of engineers is very different. They'll "brute force" a problem. They might not care how or why something happens. They accept that it happens and jump to the “what can we do with this?” stage. It reminds me of the von Geothe quote (one of my motivating quotations): "Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do."
For example, I saw on Twitter the other day that Brian Degger (@drbrian) posted “The glasses on your head is technology, the principle by which they are proposed to work is science.” To me, that means that a scientist is satisfied in knowing the optical theories. They are content knowing how and why devices like glasses could and should work. And yet you need an engineer type to actually make these devices.
However, I don’t in the least intend to display engineers as folks who leech of the discoveries of scientists and make money or help society. That might often be the case but I doubt science would be as advanced as it is without engineers. Engineers are often the inventors of the world, and many times they stumble across new phenomena that can have a huge impact on humanity. A flaw of engineers is that they won’t dig into what they see. They’ll take what they found and use it. I believe that in many cases the “stumbles” of engineers lead to worthwhile problems for scientists to solve.
Finally though, is anyone really a scientist or engineer? In this day and age where science needs funding, is any scientist really isolated from real world applications? Despite their typical brute force approach to problem solving, could any engineer really function without the scientific method? The answer to both hypotheticals is "no". Not only do these two groups rely on each other, they have some degree of each other within themselves. It is like a personality test- each person might score somewhere between “pure scientist” and “pure engineer” but no one is exclusively one or the other.
Despite that spectrum of scientist vs. engineer, I get the impression that there is some disdain from one camp to the other. An engineer might scoff at a scientist who has their "head in the clouds" and a scientist might scoff at an engineer who is just chasing money and fame. Besides accepting one and other, the two groups really need to understand the benefits of the other. They should recognize the synergies created by a collaboration across that spectrum. And they should encourage their students to think and act like both types of researchers. And to that degree, maybe colleges with science and engineering are a good thing, despite “strange bedfellows”.
PS- As someone who is starting to identify more as an engineer one of my favorite quotes is from Douglas H. Everett: “There are some people who live in a dream world, and there are some who face reality; and then there are those who turn one into the other.” Makes me feel all tingly inside!
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As an Engineer, I must disagree. In my experience at least, I have not come across this 'brute force' approach you mention. Although you are right, and they do not ask 'why' in the philosophical sense, and they are definitely more rigid in their thinking, the 'why' in the practical sense is of utmost importance. If you do not understand precisely why something fails, you will not be certain your design is free of that failure mode. It was always a priority to figure out what went wrong, and be able to reproduce it i.e. understand why it went wrong. That was never skipped over, even if the outcome seems to work and passes all tests.
I do agree however that there are vast differences in approach between the two, and I can see why you would make that distinction. I personally feel like more of a scientist when I'm around engineers, and more like an Engineer when I'm around scientists.
There is a continuum between science and engineering, and I would posit a similar one between engineering and art.
'Extreme science' is about discovering new things about the universe, relating them, building robust theories that explain them and predict what other things might be related. 'Extreme engineering' is about building things using industry standard practices and components as much a possible in order to satisfy a need, often commercial. In between you get people with degrees in highly abstract science areas that are working effectively as engineers in order to design and develop equipment they need for their 'real work'. Or people with engineering degrees that are working as scientists. Or people with both kinds of qualification - or even neither. I've known some damn good engineers with literature degrees.
Scientists spend a great deal of their time problems solving - that's what gathering information, relating it, building hypotheses and testing them *is*. Engineers do the same. Engineers often design and build new things or even materials to allow some new kind of machine to exist. So do scientists.
Artists tend to be in the business of discovering and expressing things about themselves and sometimes 'us'. Like engineers, many of them use standard components - paints, for example - and like scientists they sometimes discover or invent new media or techniques. Many great visual artists of the past had to be pretty good chemists to make their paints. Not a few sculptors have had to be damn good engineers to make their works work.
The connection is problem solving. Creative, curious people like to solve problems. Some like to solves the problem of "I wonder why that does this?", some prefer "How do I make sometihng to ...? and some like "How can I show everyone why this matters?" If you are doing science, you are a scientist. If you are engineering you are an engineer and if making art, an artist. Nothing stops us being all three if we want to - I have engineering degrees, an art post-grad and have worked at various research institutions.
I agree to some degree, but let me ask this: if it WORKED would an engineer care WHY it worked? Around here some folks have been focusing on memristors, and while some people are trying to figure out why they work, many don't care why and are just trying to see what they can do with it.
With respect to brute force, I look at it this way (going back to memristors):
The scientist in me would figure out what the most likely theory is and devise an experiment to prove or disprove it. The engineer in me would vary a bunch of different parameters, collect data, and then try to decide what is the most likely theory.
Of course, all just my opinion!
Wow, I've always respected artists from afar- I'm not artistic, and I can't pretend to understand what they do. I can't do it, but they can, so more power to them.
I've never thought about it the way you put it, but it makes a lot of sense. We're not as different as we might think. It is more than just different methods, but also different tools.
dog, homie! i am ALSO tingly now!
Good article Nick Fahrenkopf :
A scientist is a person who has scientific training or who works in the sciences. An engineer is someone who is trained as an engineer. So, to my way of thinking, the practical difference lies in the educational degree and the description of the task being performed by the scientist or engineer. On a more philosophical level, scientists tend to explore the natural world and discover new knowledge about the universe and how it works. Engineers apply that knowledge to solve practical problems, often with an eye toward optimizing cost, efficiency, or some other parameters.
There is considerable overlap between science and engineering, so you will find scientists who design and construct equipment and engineers who make important scientific discoveries. Information theory was founded by Claude Shannon, a theoretical engineer. Peter Debye won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry with a degree in electrical engineering and a doctorate in physics.
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I beg to differ with what you've displeyed. There is a great connecction between engineering/engineers and scientists. They can work together with the same motive and still achieve their dream. scientists tend to explore the natural world and discover new knowledge in the world then all is implemented by engineers.