Last December, Scientific American published its annual list of the biggest science stories of 2012. As usual with lists like these, the editors included events that capture the public’s fascination – such as Felix Baumgartner’s record-breaking skydive and NASA’s Curiosity expedition to Mars – as well as more obscure but no less important achievements, like the publication of ENCODE, the encyclopedia of DNA elements, which marks a breakthrough in genetics research. The list also included political topics, such as the Supreme Court’s decision on the Affordable Care Act, as well as natural disasters, such as Hurricane Sandy and its devastation to the East Coast.
All of these stories were big news. But they weren’t all necessarily science news.
From Baumgartner’s sound-barrier-breaking descent to Curiosity’s Mars landing to many other breakthroughs in 2012, engineering played a crucial role. And factors often attributed to “science” are, more accurately, feats of engineering.
Henry Petroski, a civil engineer and historian at Duke University, rightly points out the difference between science and engineering. “Science is about understanding the origins, nature and behavior of the universe and all it contains,” he wrote in a December 2010 IEEE Spectrum article. Engineering, however, “is about solving problems by rearranging the stuff of the world to make new things.”
Consider Baumgartner’s breathtaking feat. Last October, the Austrian daredevil set the record for highest skydive ever by leaping from a balloon more than 24 miles above the Earth. In freefall, Baumgartner also became the first skydiver to break the sound barrier, hitting a top speed of Mach 1.4.
None of that would have happened without engineering – the rearranging of stuff, as Petroski might say.
Mechanical, structural and aeronautical engineers had a hand in designing the craft from which Baumgartner jumped. The full-pressure suit that protected him from head to toe is the result of materials engineers working hand-in-gloves with the laws of physics. The integrated circuitry of Baumgartner’s suit, which allowed his team to constantly monitor his well-being during the dive, involved an impressive array of electrical engineering know-how. Even the way the world followed the event online is the result of the work of engineers and scientists who joined together half a century ago on a federal research project that give rise to the Internet.
Science and engineering are partners in discovery.
Without an understanding of the world around us, engineers would be unable to solve such complex problems like those connected to Baumgartner’s descent to Earth. But too often, science has been hailed a hero, when engineering should get some, if not much, of the credit.
Page 2 of 2 - National Engineers Week is Feb. 17-23 this year.
“Celebrate Awesome” is the theme. The many engineering achievements of the past year, as described in Scientific American’s top 10 list, give us all reason to marvel at the awesome and heroic feats our nation’s engineers – working in partnership with science – bring to our everyday lives.