An essay titled Want to Engineer Real Change? Don't Ask a Scientist appeared in the Washington Post on 25 January, but I just saw it today.
The essay by a distinguished Professor of Civil Engineering, Dr. Henry Petroski, highlights examples in which science was useless for progress, but engineering was transformative. People didn't need science to invent steam engines or airplanes, only engineering. Thermodynamics might explain how things work, but it hasn't been necessary to understand thermodynamics to make important engineering advances. And so on.
I am sorry that Professor Petroski's feelings were apparently hurt that President Obama mentioned science and not engineering in his inaugural speech, but that doesn't seem sufficient justification to attack science.
The essay is remarkably narrow-minded and short-sighted. Or perhaps I am the one who is narrow-minded and short-sighted, as I would have thought that it was obvious that we need both science and engineering.
A world with scientists but no engineers would be just as limited as a world with engineers and no scientists. It is pointless to set the two communities in opposition, as if one has been important throughout history and one has been comparatively useless.
The essay doesn't deserve any more discussion, but I will just mention that when I showed it to a colleague and said something along the lines of what I wrote above, he said that my conclusion that we need both scientists and engineers was like saying that everyone is special and so I must be an it-takes-a-village-ist who thinks that we should all have a seat at a nice round table etc. etc.
OK.. maybe.. I get the point (and the H Clinton reference), but I don't think that recognizing the importance of both science and engineering is a uniquely feminine point of view.
My colleague went on to say that my everyone-is-special philosophy betrayed my liberal-artsy roots. OK.. maybe.. and maybe my colleague will now be inspired to write an essay about how science has been responsible for many major advances in civilization but poetry has gotten us nowhere. Or he could write about how the second law of thermodynamics has been more important for civilization than the collective works of Shakespeare. The possibilities are endless.. and idiotic.
10 months ago