The Cyclical Nature of Science and Engineering

There’s a common trend in research. A deep seated animosity between those that call themselves “Scientists” and those that call themselves “Engineers”. These two groups occasionally view each other as polar opposites with different incentives and lopsided ideals about the ins and outs of novel discovery.

The scientist delves deep into questions that have yet to be solved. A common description from many PhD advisers is that of piercing the bubble of current knowledge. You dig, and dig at the current facts until you crack the surface of understanding; discovering a question no one has answered yet. The shovel hits with a resonant thunk on a yet to be elucidated hypothesis. At this stage, the scientist must be careful. Like a fossil, the discovery is fragile and ill defined. They rely on tools to pick apart what they have revealed, coming to a conclusion over time. They work to prove both to themselves and the outside world that what they have found is both novel and interesting. They take this polished discovery to the surface and hold it high for all to see. Some of these discoveries (if written well, or fit with the current trend of the time) are heralded as the great revelations of an era. Others are deemed uninteresting or tossed aside in favor of new promises just below the surface of the previous find.

The Engineer on the other hand does not dig deep for the rich potential that lays beneath the ground. Instead, they search and examine all that has already been discovered. The discarded and preserved fossils that scientists have elucidated over the years. Sometimes they will see where two discoveries can fit together, like the bones of some elaborate creature. They see the diamond in the rough of a discovery long since left behind. Through these insights, Engineers develop and polish new tools, strategies, and techniques. Engineers who successfully bring together ideas or show the potential in forgotten treasures are lauded in their own right for building upon the backs of those that came before them. Often this occurs to the chagrin of scientists who in their haste to dig deeper neglect to take the time to fully flesh out the potential of their discovery.

In a broader context engineers create models and tools based on current understanding; they fit together current knowledge into a useful paradigm or build a device that follows the principles outlined by others. Some of the most applicable of these are simplifications of what to the Scientist is an infinitely complex problem.

As the late George Box famously stated:

“ Since all models are wrong, the scientist cannot obtain a “correct” one by excessive elaboration. On the contrary following William of Occam he should seek an economical description of natural phenomena. Just as the ability to devise simple but evocative models is the signature of the great scientist so overelaboration and overparameterization is often the mark of mediocrity.”

Written in more simplified terms, all models are wrong, but some are useful.

Often the Scientist’s chief complaint is that an Engineer’s model does not take into account all possible iterations of what is. To the Scientists, the natural world has infinitely complex potential. A rose by any other name is NOT just as sweet. The scientist in this case is quit the hypocrite. The many tools which they use to study and elucidate novel discoveries were themselves once divergent concepts simplified into a usable form, often by the very same engineers they lambaste.

The curious issue is that the very dichotomy between Engineer and Scientist is itself flawed. Many Scientists wear the hats of engineers when they define or present their discoveries in simplified ways. While many Engineers often need to elucidate new knowledge themselves and dig in order to properly produce the tools that they wish to create.

The entire process is itself a cycle where discoveries are found, tools and models are produced from said discoveries, and the new tools are put to work to dig deeper and further into the unknown.

At the end of the day, despite the differences engineers and scientists may see between each-other, both are necessary to breach the boundaries of understanding and to break ground on what has yet to be seen.