Once again, reporters and commentators are displaying their ignorance by praising the spectacular success of NASA’s Perseverance Mars landing as a “great scientific achievement.”
Not to diminish the importance of the feat in the realm of science, it was a far greater achievement in engineering. Once again, engineering is taking a back seat to the improperly used catchall category of “science.”
There are just too many examples of this sort of mindlessness. A few are here and here. President Joe Biden did his part by his non-inclusive use of “the power of science” in his congratulatory message to NASA.
This a more accurate description of the overarching role of engineering in the Perseverance success: “What it takes to get a job building robotic Mars explorers for NASA.” Just for a start, how do you shoot a vehicle into space to a target millions of miles away and make if land remotely on a spot the size of a garage? Mind boggling.
This disrespect is nothing new. To say engineering achievements are overlooked is a vast understatement. Praise is almost exclusively hurled at architects for new and startling forms of buildings, but structural engineers keep them from otherwise collapsing. E
ngineers make planes fly and spaceships soar. Packaging engineers make all those Fed Ex deliveries possible. Engineers massage medical science discoveries into practical equipment that saves lives. Engineers designed this computer I’m writing this on. Petroleum engineers refine crude oil into less polluting and more efficient fuel and into millions of consumer products. If that doesn’t please you, without engineers, there’d be no alternative energy sources like solar panels and windmills.
In a continuing and endless insult, Nobel Prizes are handed out copiously to the sciences (including, good lord, for economics), but not for engineering. In supreme irony, the prize’s creator, Alfred Nobel, was an engineer. Consequently, engineers had to create their own prestigious equivalent, the Draper Prize with its $500,000 award.
The 2020 award went to Jean Fréchet and C. Grant Willson “for the invention, development, and commercialization of chemically amplified materials for micro- and nanofabrication, enabling the extreme miniaturization of microelectronic devices.” In other words, thank them for the smart phone or other device on which you are reading this.
Passing without notice in Chicago was a local winner of the prize some years ago, Vladimir Haensel, who, while at the Des Plaines-based UOP Inc., invented the platinum catalytic process for reforming petroleum into gasoline.
I hope Engineering Is Not Science helps explain it:
Engineers are not a sub-category of scientists. So often the two terms are used interchangeably, but they are separate, albeit related, disciplines. Scientists explore the natural world and show us how and why it is as it is. Discovery is the essence of science. Engineers innovate solutions to real-world challenges in society. While it is true that engineering without science could be haphazard; without engineering, scientific discovery would be a merely an academic pursuit.
Thank you, engineers, for all that you do.
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