Scientists or engineers – who should we thank for the Higgs Boson?

16 Jan 2020 4min read

Is engineering a ‘science’? It’s a question that can produce passionate responses from the most even-tempered of individuals.

Here at Team, we’ve encountered numerous projects where the two disciplines are tightly intertwined, one example being our work on the OrganOx automated human liver perfusion system. Throughout the project we had various discussions about what differentiates engineers from scientists, conversations that came down to three key differences – in aims, approaches to problems and solutions.

Scientists and engineers have different aims

Engineers’ work is generally focused on solving designated real-life problems. Scientists, on the other hand, generally seek to expand the understanding of the world around them. We must note that very little scientific research is blue funded, without a clear practical goal; nearly every science proposal in academia must detail how the research could be utilised in the real world. However, the initial aim of scientific research is not always to find a solution, rather to find out more about how things work.

For engineers, there is a tangible finish-line for their work, but scientists seek to expand knowledge in areas previously not understood.

Scientists and engineers approach problems differently

Perhaps the key difference lies in the route by which scientists and engineers reach their solutions? The scientific method requires a hypothesis, and then analytical tests to prove or disprove it. An engineer starts with a problem, creates a list of requirements for the end product and then works to develop a solution that will meet each of their specifications. Again, the line between the two is blurred – an engineer will often apply the scientific method to try various solutions in the early stages of developing a prototype – but the process is nonetheless very different.

Having different outcomes for their endeavours

The difference in outcome of their endeavours also separates engineers and scientists. For engineers, there is a tangible finish-line for their work; once the solution is found and their end product finished, no further work is necessary. Scientists, however, seek to expand knowledge in areas previously not understood. Therefore, there may not be a clear end point or solution – the process is not clear cut or obvious. Often results may be different than expected, but very little would ever be published in journals if scientists only submitted their work once they believed it to be faultless. On the contrary, some engineering requires what can only be considered perfection.

Does science come before engineering?

It’s arguable that science comes before engineering, and enables it – we can perhaps see engineering as the practical application of scientific principles to real-life problems. However, although true in many circumstances, this doesn’t always apply: the scientific discovery of the Higgs Boson was only possible once the Large Hydron Collider – one of the most impressive feats of engineering, was built.

It is evident that the differences between engineering and science are complex and often difficult to define. The debate will continue, but we’re better off focussing on how we can work in collaboration, and bring together our different expertise to innovate and achieve.

Feature image is from Simos Xenitellis, Part of the tubing of a particle acceleration, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

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