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September 24, 2012 AT 11:50 am

Elon Musk on Scientists vs. Engineers

Engineering.com interviews Elon Musk, and asks him his opinion on science vs. engineering. He gives the right answer. :)

Basically, you can’t do the physics without the engineering. While it’s true that engineering is constrained by and reliant upon physical laws, further discoveries in the sciences require engineers (in title or in spirit) to design, build and operate the apparatus for the experiment. This truth applies to the lens grinders who made Galileo’s telescope all the way up to the LHC at CERN and the Curiosity lander, and even further back than that. Behind every great scientist, there’s a great engineer! :)

[via Chris]


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6 Comments

  1. Newton ground his own lenses and mirrors. Fisher could blow his own glassware. One can’t say which activity is ‘science’ and which is ‘engineering’. Is a materials scientist actually an engineer? Meh, better to do stuff we like and apply labels after the fact, if then.

  2. Lens grinding is an engineering practice. It’s the application of scientific knowledge to the material world.

    Just because Isaac Newton is the one performing the work doesn’t automatically make it ‘pure science’ — Newton was as brilliant an engineer as he was a scientist.

    Science defines the concepts, theories and axioms, but when you apply them to the real world it’s called engineering.

  3. ‘Science defines the concepts, theories and axioms, but when you apply them to the real world it’s called engineering.’

    Bullpucky. That’s like saying a mathematician who calculates the miles per gallon for his car isn’t doing math. Science is all about the real world (String theory being the exception).

    Lens grinding for Newton was a mechanical process that was guided by theory, an understanding of the materials, constant monitoring and a steady hand, and with the ultimate goal of understanding the world a little better. It was a goal oriented activity that used math, planning, innovation, discovery, iterative learning, and craftmanship. It was altogether a human endeavor and creative process that some laughingly try to jam into a particular bin, much like trying to determine whether a tree branch fits better in a square versus a round hole.

    Look, we can’t come up with a single, coherent definition for ‘biological species’. So don’t think that we can easily come up with easy classifications for things that are as god awful messy as what humans do.

    It’s been my experience that those who spend a lot of time worrying about the differences between engineering and science or trying to classify activities into clear ‘camps’ are missing the big picture and the higher, more interesting connections.

  4. I think that’s a false dichotomy.
    And I say that as an engineer AND a scientist.

    As a scientist, you _should_ use engineering skills to design and build the experiences to prove or disprove the theory you make (does not apply to the purely theoretical fields, off course).

    And I an engineer, you _should_ use the scientific method every time you have to find new solutions to old or new problems, otherwise you’re stuck in the incredibly time-consuming loop of "tinker, fail, tinker more, fail again, etc".

  5. science and engineering go hand in hand

  6. I have no idea what the scientific method is. That’s probably because I’m not a philosopher of science despite being trained in scientific philosophy (covering the natural sciences). I’m not even sure the philosophers of science know that answer and they’ve been working on that nut for a good century or a few more. I just do what I do and sometimes science gets done. Sometimes I build or design things for some reason and that’s sufficient by itself to be useful. Other times I work in a team to figure out how another little part of the world works, like which signalling pathways in a cell can be disrupted to specifically block cancer cells from growing.

    It’s really a matter of collecting and exercising the appropriate tools and techniques for the task at hand and then using them thoughtfully. Once you’re comfortable with that, you don’t need to fret about what you call yourself. It’s all a continuum.

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