Conspiring with engineers helps make science great

From what I can tell, there’s a fair amount of friendly rivalry between folks who call themselves “scientists” and those who call themselves “engineers.” Bill Nye, educated as a mechanical engineer, had to defend himself as the “Science Guy” on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert earlier this year: “It’s physics, for four years, it’s physics,” he said. Dean of the Boston University College of Engineering, Kenneth R. Lutchen, has adamantly declared that “Engineers are not a subcategory of scientists,” going on to lament the fact that a 2010 Time magazine story about Thomas Edison used the word science many more times than engineering. And let’s not forget T-shirts with bold claims like: “Scientists dream about doing great things, engineers do them.” Ouch.

But I suspect, when asked, both scientists and engineers would readily admit that they rely on each other. Many of the best collaborations call on the skills of both. That’s definitely the case for the detection of gravitational waves, which won researchers from Caltech and MIT the 2017 Nobel Prize in physics. Albert Einstein had predicted gravitational waves a century ago; the trick was to figure out how to build an interferometer sensitive enough to detect changes measuring a tiny fraction of the diameter of a proton. I’m not the first person to call it an impressive feat of engineering. No doubt the development of cryo-electron microscopy, the topic of this year’s chemistry Nobel, also required an engineering perspective. It took improved optics, detectors and computational techniques to boost the resolution of what many had called “blobology.” Those are just two examples of many. Consider where astronomy would be without improvements in the telescope, or where studies of past climate would be without drilling technologies to pull up gigantic sediment cores. And what about genetic engineering? No field is hotter right now.

Though science is more about acquiring knowledge and engineering more about applying it, the two passions often coexist in the same individual. Engineers possess the spirit of discovery, too. And a lot of scientists harness their findings for the betterment of humankind.

Elizabeth Quill is the executive editor. She has overseen collections on topics ranging from consciousness to general relativity, and recently took a deep dive into the periodic table of the elements.

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