Science, Technology, and Google News

Recently, Google News separated its Science and Technology sections into two distinct parts. This seems to have been desired for some time and is a welcome change.

For many people, technology and engineering are part of the same intellectual package that science is a part of. But that’s not really true. While it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish the two–the fruits of each can lead to breakthroughs in the other–they are distinct. Henry Petroski, a professor at Duke, wrote a thought-provoking article in IEEE Spectrum in December 2010 titled Engineering is Not Science, about this distinction:

Science is about understanding the origins, nature, and behavior of the universe and all it contains; engineering is about solving problems by rearranging the stuff of the world to make new things. Conflating these separate objectives leads to uninformed opinions, which in turn can delay or misdirect management, effort, and resources.

Take this year’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. No one, to the best of my knowledge, blamed it on science. Poor engineering decisions allowed gas to escape from a well in deep water, which in turn caused a fatal explosion. Subsequently, the engineered blowout preventer failed, and for months oil escaped into the environment. Poor engineering got us into the mess; surely only good engineering could get us out of it. Yet repeatedly, government and other research scientists were allowed to veto the engineering tactics needed to stanch the flow. In the end, of course, it was engineering that finally capped the well.

Throughout history, a full scientific understanding has been neither necessary nor sufficient for great technological advances: The era of the steam engine, notably, was well into its second century before a fully formed science of thermodynamics had been developed. Indeed, sometimes science has impeded progress. Had Marconi believed his physicist contemporaries, he would have “known” that wireless telegraphy signals could not be sent across the ocean, around Earth’s curvature.

Engineers welcome any and all available scientific knowledge, but they needn’t wait for scientists to give them the go-ahead to invent, design, or develop the machinery to advance technology or to check it when it runs out of control. Without understanding this, we will continue to underfund the engineering needed to solve our greatest problems.

Thanks to @underSixFoot for the pointer to the change in Google News.