Saturday, July 04, 2009

Citizen Engineers

As regular readers of this blog probably know (and I appreciate all 20 of you), I send a lot of links and occasional articles to Darlene Cavalier, the Science Cheerleader. Darlene has made it her personal mission to get more of our fellow citizens (she's based out of Philadelphia, that most American of places) interested and participating in science and science issues.

The problem with science is that it's not engineering. After doing some science writing at NASA, I discovered that I preferred engineering as a subject matter. I can do either, but engineering makes more sense to me because, while science is about understanding the unknown, engineering is about taking the known and using it for human purposes. Science often involves analogies and guesses and mistaken theories (phlogiston and human-induced global warming are my two favorites at the moment). You're never really certain you've got it right. Engineering, however, is a little more empirical and forgiving: "If I build X widget to Y tolerances/requirements, will it perform B function for C operating cycles?"

Another advantage engineering has over science is that it's been around a lot longer. Human beings have been doing engineering since the times of the of ancient Pyramids, but have really only performed science as a systematic practice for the last 200 years or so. A lot of engineering knowledge continues to pass from person to person, despite the existence of engineering and trade journals. I don't know if this is an advantage, but it seems to be a fact of life, as individual craftsmen pass on lessons learned the hard way ("You don't want to put too much shimming here, or the rocket will topple over"). Science appears to be much more formal and written down, with everything documented to ensure consistent results.

But the reason I like engineering writing better is simply because it's writing about human beings making changes in the real world. If a human being designed a machine, odds are halfway decent that another person will be able to understand what that machine is supposed to do. Not always, of course. We still don't know how the Egyptians built the Pyramids, nor do we fully understand how ancient humans learned how to make bronze or steel. These are puzzles for the engineering historian, perhaps.

In any case, while science has undoubtedly changed humanity's perceptions of the universe, engineering is the discipline that has allowed us to shape parts of our universe to allow us to survive and improve our standard of living. My interest lies there. So even if I don't have an engineering degree, I suppose as a technical writer I can lay claim to being a "citizen engineer," as Darlene colors herself a "citizen scientist." My "engineering," however, consists of sharing information about technical subjects--I'm still enough of a klutz to know that I probably shouldn't be turning wrenches...

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