Friday, February 3, 2012

Is engineering science?

Science, technology, engineering, and math get mashed together into “STEM” pretty often.
But they are separate fields. And while some engineers identify themselves as scientists, others say outright that engineering isn’t science.

So do I think that engineering is science?


I know; that’s a cheater answer.

In their pure, Platonic forms, Science and Engineering do have somewhat different purposes. Science is fundamentally about answering a question, while Engineering is fundamentally about solving a problem.

Even in these pure, separate forms though, the two areas necessarily interact.

Scientists use technology to conduct experiments in order to figure out how the world works. Engineers use scientific principles in order to create better technology. I almost feel like you can’t even have one without the other. There’s only so many gedankenexperiments you can do before you have perform a physical experiment using, say, a microscope, a spectrometer, or a position sensor. And engineers are going to have a hard time making any technological advancements without concepts from science directing them.

But the line between science and engineering is lot blurrier than even this explanation makes it sound.

Take nanowires as an example. Keeping up with Moore’s Law requires us to make circuitry smaller and smaller, to the point where we’re now looking at transistors that are about 20 nanometers and wires only a couple of nanometers wide. This seems like it’s obviously engineering. It’s new, cutting-edge technology.

But we’re still figuring out how physics works for components this small. You have to start worrying about quantum effects. Heck, you even need to confirm if Ohm’s Law works at this scale.

You can’t study this technology without studying the physics, and you can’t study the physics without studying the technology. I don’t see a clear division between the science and the engineering.

It’s true that the typical engineer working in industry probably doesn’t do what we would call science. But I don’t think that the typical chemist working in industry is necessarily doing science either. And I think any academic research in engineering is almost always science, since it’s nearly impossible to do that kind of cutting edge work without being at the edge of what we know about how things work.

So, as a field, is engineering science?

At the very least, there’s a whole lot of overlap.

I apologize for the paywalls. I'll try to find some good open access sources on nanowires to update this post.

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