What Pure Science Dreamed Up

Sunday, February 1, 2009

I couldn't disagree more with the message of Henry Petroski's Jan. 25 Outlook article, "Want to Engineer Real Change? Don't Ask a Scientist." Yes, engineering is a necessary step in the implementation of every scientific discovery, and I bow to the achievements of engineers who have helped to make our lives better. But we shouldn't forget that true breakthroughs are usually the consequence of (allegedly) purpose-free scientific research.

For instance, the TV tube was a product of pure scientific interest.

Semiconductors, the basis of today's computer technology, would have never been developed without scientific interest in materials that engineers at the time considered useless. Public-key cryptography, which secures almost everything from your credit card number to nuclear arsenals, has its roots in purely mathematical number theory that was developed for nothing more than the beauty of it. The same goes for a range of medical instruments, including X-ray and MRI machines. Sure, Mr. Petroski's engineering-focused approach to politics would have given us more fuel-efficient steam engines. But we wouldn't have TV, computers, the Internet, penicillin and more.




I was dismayed to read Henry Petroski's Outlook commentary. When the rest of the world is rapidly catching up to us in science and technology, the last thing our scientists and engineers should be doing is arguing about who is more important.

As a chemical engineer inducted into the National Academy of Engineering, I have always been proud of engineering's contributions to civilization and our quality of life, but I also know that these are part of a continuum that starts with basic science. Despite what Mr. Petroski argued, science seeks not only "to understand the world as it is" but also to change it.

Molecules and materials created by chemists and other scientists become the medicines that heal us, the microchips that run our computers, the lasers we use for microsurgery, the fiber optics that connect us to the world.

And contrary to his argument, a revolution in solar cells is as likely to come from scientists discovering novel molecules to harness sunlight more effectively as from engineers finding ways to manufacture them more efficiently. These days, science and engineering are an integrated enterprise and work best in tandem. Trying to elevate one by putting down the other serves neither -- and least of all our nation and our future.



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