Simanaitis Says

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THE DISTINCTION BETWEEN the sciences and engineering is a recent topic at the Members Community of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. 

A fair amount of the discussion is tongue-in-cheek, the kind of banter that might take place prior to a college faculty meeting: “Biologists are chemists who don’t know how to add.” “Yes, but they can multiply.”

As a mathematics major at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, I straddled the border between the sciences and engineering. (We used to joke that applied mathematics was something you did with your dorm door locked.) Here are tidbits from the AAAS Member Community, as well as from my usual Internet sleuthing.

Engineering. Merriam-Webster defines “engineering” as “the application of science and mathematics by which the properties of matter and sources of energy in nature are made useful to people.”

No problem with this, except maybe to quibble about the apparent separation of “science and mathematics,” as though they’re chalk and cheese.

Pause Here for an Oft-told Tale. An engineer is working at his office desk. His cigarette falls off the ashtray into the wastebasket, causing the papers within to burst into flame. The engineer looks around, sees a fire extinguisher, grabs it, puts out the fire, and goes back to work.

A physicist is working at his desk in another office and also starts a wastebasket fire. He looks at the fire, looks at the fire extinguisher, and reasons, “Fire requires fuel plus oxygen plus heat. The fire extinguisher will remove both the oxygen and the heat in the wastebasket. Thus, no fire.” He grabs the extinguisher, puts out the flames, and goes back to work.  

A mathematician is working at his desk in another office and the same thing happens. He looks at the fire, looks at the fire extinguisher, ponders these two observations, and says, “Aha! A solution exists!” and goes back to work.

Fundamental Laws of Engineering. The following was posted at the AAAS Member Community.

First Law: The correct order is debug, then ship.

Second Law: If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it.

Third Law: If you fiddle with something long enough, it will break.

Fourth Law: It works better if you plug it in.

Fifth Law: If it’s wedged, power-cycle it.

Sixth Law: The working example is worth a thousand manual pages.

Seventh Law: Failures occur where two parts join.

Eighth Law: Demos cause failures.

Ninth Law: Systems grow more complex with time.

Tenth Law: If it’s too complex, rebuild it.

Eleventh Law: Small parts vanish when dropped.

Twelfth Law: Don’t build with components what you can buy pre-packaged for less. 

Comments on These Fundamentals: The Second Law has saved me uncountable hours of toil. This is related to my Third Law experience in repairing my English Ford Consul convertible. Back in those days, its roomy engine compartment was confirmation of the Eleventh Law, with the subtext that the part would be lost somewhere beneath the car. Today’s engine compartments need no such subtext; the part is in there somewhere….

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Science(s). Merriam-Webster offers several definitions of “science,” including “knowledge or a system of knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws especially as obtained and tested through scientific method.”

The Scientific Method. These last two words are worthy of added scrutiny: MW defines the “scientific method” as “principles and procedures for the systematic pursuit of knowledge involving the recognition and formulation of the problem, the collection of data through observation and experiment, and the formulation and testing of hypotheses.”

These three steps, problem identification, data collection, and hypotheses assessment, are paramount in separating science from an addled uncle’s ramblings. 

Problem assessment is not unrelated to the Fundamental Second Law. Of data, Sherlock Holmes said, “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.” And, note, hypotheses are subject to reformulation based on testing. Science is a process. 

The Sciences and Mathematics. Here’s my favorite cartoon about rivalries among the sciences. 

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I conclude with a friendly poke at my educational choice, as offered here at SimanaitisSays. An engineer and a mathematician were shown into a kitchen, given empty pans, and told to boil water. Each filled the pan with water, put it on the stove, and boiled the water. The next day they were shown into the kitchen again, given pans filled with water, and told to boil the water. The engineer took the pan, put it on the stove, and boiled the water. The mathematician took the pan and emptied it, thereby reducing it to a previously solved problem. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2020

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