Monday, January 16, 2017

What is the difference between science and engineering?

In my colleague Rebecca Richards-Kortum's great talk at Rice's CUWiP meeting this past weekend, she spoke about her undergrad degree in physics at Nebraska, her doctorate in medical physics from MIT, and how she ended up doing bioengineering.  As a former undergrad engineer who went the other direction, I think her story did a good job of illustrating the distinctions between science and engineering, and the common thread of problem-solving that connects them.

In brief, science is about figuring out the ground rules about how the universe works.   Engineering is about taking those rules, and then figuring out how to accomplish some particular task.   Both of these involve puzzle-like problem-solving.  As a physics example on the experimental side, you might want to understand how electrons lose energy to vibrations in a material, but you only have a very limited set of tools at your disposal - say voltage sources, resistors, amplifiers, maybe a laser and a microscope and a spectrometer, etc.  Somehow you have to formulate a strategy using just those tools.  On the theory side, you might want to figure out whether some arrangement of atoms in a crystal results in a lowest-energy electronic state that is magnetic, but you only have some particular set of calculational tools - you can't actually solve the complete problem and instead have to figure out what approximations would be reasonable, keeping the essentials and neglecting the extraneous bits of physics that aren't germane to the question.

Engineering is the same sort of process, but goal-directed toward an application rather than specifically the acquisition of new knowledge.  You are trying to solve a problem, like constructing a machine that functions like a CPAP, but has to be cheap and incredibly reliable, and because of the price constraint you have to use largely off-the-shelf components.  (Here's how it's done.)

People act sometimes like there is a vast gulf between scientists and engineers - like the former don't have common sense or real-world perspective, or like the latter are somehow less mathematical or sophisticated.  Those stereotypes even comes through in pop culture, but the differences are much less stark than that.  Both science and engineering involve creativity and problem-solving under constraints.   Often which one is for you depends on what you find most interesting at a given time - there are plenty of scientists who go into engineering, and engineers can pursue and acquire basic knowledge along the way.  Particularly in the modern, interdisciplinary world, the distinction is less important than ever before.

1 comment:

Charu said...

IMHO, the lines are even more blurred because the best scientists often have a strong engineering skill set, and the best engineers have a strong scientific understanding of physical phenomena.