Science and engineering are inseparable domains of thought and action, linked by a shared language of mass and energy, molecules and thermodynamics, physical systems and physical law. This shared language makes communication deceptively easy — easy, because scientists and engineers can see every detail in the same way; deceptive, because they see these details in different contexts, forming different patterns and presenting different problems. In a fundamental sense, science and engineering are antiparallel, facing in opposite directions. The resulting gaps in understanding can open a chasm wide enough to trip a manager, or to swallow a project.
This places a premium on minds that encompass both, whether they work as “scientists” or as “engineers”. The modes of thought are fundamentally different, but needn’t clash.
As I discussed in a recent post, scientific inquiry and engineering design are often intimately interleaved (in projects, in activities, in creative minds), and to such an extent that (perilously!) they may seem the same. Here, I will focus on the differences that thread through a complex relationship.
A familiar pattern difficulties at the science/engineering interface often impedes corporate research, and I’m working with a former R&D manager to develop a presentation package that addresses this. In the broader technical community, however, similar difficulties impede progress in understanding what science can and can’t tell us about the future potential of technology, thereby impeding the development of reality-based policies. In both instances, the costs include delay, friction, waste, risk, and missed opportunity, and in both instances, understanding the structural basis of the problem can help to resolve it.
Both scientific inquiry and engineering design can be dissected into three levels: physical systems, concrete descriptions of physical systems, and general patterns that apply to an indefinitely large number of systems. Here’s a diagram that captures some key relationships:
The information flows that link these levels are antiparallel: In scientific inquiry, physical systems shape their descriptions through measurement, and the results constrain and shape general, abstract models (theories) by testing them. In engineering design, by contrast, descriptions (specifications) shape physical systems through fabrication, and general, abstract models (system concepts) shape descriptions through design.
The universal and the particular
These information relationships differ in another dimension: the universal vs. the particular, equality vs. constraint, “For all x, a = b, c = d,…” vs. “There exists x such that a ≤ b, c ≤ d,…”. On one side is an ideal of generality and perfection that can only be approximated; on the other side is a target that is routinely achieved.
While science aims (ideally) to produce exact descriptions of all parameters of all members of a general class of physical systems, engineering aims to manufacture instances of a single kind of system, making choices to ensure that itsfunctional parameters will equal or exceed those specified by a design description.
Likewise, while science aims to formulate a single theory that exactly fits all parameters of every description, engineering aims to design at least one description of a system having functional parameters that equal or exceed those required by one of a potential multiplicity of system concepts.
In this connection, is a proliferation of possible ways of satisfying a constraint good, or bad? In science, finding more possibilities creates greater uncertainty; in engineering, finding more possibilities provides greater freedom of design. This is a basic question with opposite answers — and there are many more.
Science and engineering share a language of physical systems and physical law, but they ask different questions, seek different knowledge, and serve different ends. The ramifications range from different views of the non-linear system dynamics to differences in working relationships and institutions. The consequences are pervasive and deep, familiar and surprising, and extend far beyond what I have sketched here.
It is hard to quantify or predict the value of modest improvements in mutual understanding among scientists, engineers, and research managers, but the potential value is surely enormous. Modest improvements in understanding and communication can speed progress, reduce risks, and occasionally uncover a transformative strategic opportunity.
I think that a creating a deeper and more widely shared understanding of the contrasting faces of science and engineering can help to produce those modest improvements.
- How to Learn About Everything
- How to Understand Everything (and Why)
- Science and Engineering: A Layer-Cake of Inquiry and Design
- Inquiry in Engineering, Design in Science: Completing the Matrix
- Knowledge and causality in inquiry and design
- A Map of Science
- A Telescope Aimed at the Future
- Exploratory Engineering:
Applying the predictive power of science
to future technologies