[time-nuts] science projects

Jim Lux jimlux at earthlink.net
Fri Feb 10 01:14:25 UTC 2012

On 2/9/12 4:00 PM, Bill Hawkins wrote:
> Fellow time scientists,
> Here's my view of the difference between science and engineering:
> If marketing studies show a positive return on investment, engineers
> are turned loose to solve the problems revealed as the details of
> building or manufacturing the new thing are studied.

I'd differ here.  My contention is that (creative) engineers are 
fundamentally lazy.. they want to reduce the effort to accomplish 
something.  Imagine people who have been wading across a river for 
centuries.. an engineer says, "there must be a better way", and invents 
a bridge.

Although that's really invention.
Engineering is also the effective use of knowledge to predict future 
behavior.  A craftsman might use a particular size piece of stone or 
steel because that's tradition, or because they have a "feel" for it. An 
engineer would use it because they can calculate the loads, they know 
the material properties, so they are making the choice based on 
quantitative models and theory.

However, engineers tend to be focused more on the end result or process: 
the how, rather than the why.  They're interested in why, but often 
that's because that lets them do a better how.

Scientists tend to be focused on understanding the why.

But, as mentioned, when you get to applied science.. Is the guy 
measuring fission cross sections in a critical assembly doing basic 
physics to understand chain reactions or is he building a bomb or 
reactor, for which he needs to understand chain reactions?

There's a reputational thing too.. Scientists are, in some ways, 
considered higher class than engineers.  I think this is a holdover from 
18th and 19th class distinction: gentleman scientist vs tradesman 
engineer.  An awful lot of what Lord Rayleigh did was engineering, 
although I'll bet that most biographies describe him as a scientist.

The whole, "if it has practical value, it's trade", thing:  like amateur 
sports being somehow "better" than doing it for money.

There is a notable distinction here at work (NASA/JPL) in scientists vs 
engineers, but it's not so much about background or motivations, but in 
time scale of concern.

Consider a scientist for a space probe to investigate something: Mars. 
They've got these questions about Mars that they've had for years, and 
they've worked for years and years to get a mission funded, to get the 
data they need to answer their question, and they expect to spend the 
rest of their life working on that data.

The engineers designing and building and operating that probe, on the 
other hand, came to the party fairly late.  They were working on some 
other spacecraft perhaps, but now they're designing and building the 
instruments or infrastructure to make the measurement.  They get it 
built, launch it, and then, they're off to make the next space probe or 
instrument.  Not that they aren't interested in what they built, or the 
data it will return, but nobody is willing to pay them to do that. (and, 
in a utilitarian sense, that's not an effective use of their hard won 
and unique skill set).

The other distinction is the amount of personal investment in the whole 
thing.  Typically, the probe is NOT the engineer's life work. If it 
blows up on the launch pad, they'll be disappointed, but life goes on. 
For the scientist, though, this is a catastrophic life disaster.  The 
culmination of their every hope and dream for the past decades has just 
vanished in a ball of fire.

Of course, the distinction is not as hard as all that... plenty of 
engineers work for decades on a particular instrument or spacecraft and 
are pretty invested in it.  However, I still think that the reaction to 
the loss of the spacecraft is different:  the engineer regrets the loss 
of the invested time and knowledge, and perhaps the specialized 
knowledge for which there is no use now which was sort difficult to 
acquire.  But the scientist finds that the burning question which has 
motivated them for years will likely never be answered, or worse, from a 
personal pride standpoint, will be answered by someone else.

(I say all this as a Principal Investigator on a payload that will 
hopefully NOT disappear in a ball of fire in June)

More information about the time-nuts mailing list