Thursday, March 25, 2010

An Engineer in Defense of Science

Here is an old opinion piece from the Washington Post; I only just saw that because someone in my building stuck a copy on the board next to his door.

"Want to Engineer Real Change? Don't Ask a Scientist," is the title of the piece, and it goes on to say that while the parts of Obama's inauguration address talking about putting science to its rightful place had a noble sentiment, "Obama's misconception is a common one," and scientists aren't engineers and vice versa, and science is seeking to understand "the world as it is; only engineering can change it."

Technically speaking, correct. And... not quite. More on that ahead.

The writer goes on to point out that if people had waited for the papers on aerodynamics to be published, the Orville brothers would never have developed a flying plane; that similarly, in many areas of physical science, the technology dragged the physics into light. By making people research things with the motivation of "This works, but we have no idea why it works," we did learn things. This is true. (Although how much technology preceded the understanding of the underlying science is debatable, in many cases. And yes, photoelectricity was observed before Einstein explained it in 1905 and nabbed the Nobel Prize. If left empirical, none of its applications would emerge---no-theory empirical data about light frequencies and electron energies would not lead to quantum well structures, trust me.)

There is a reason why the author writes this strangely plaintive piece, of course: He's thinking that too much emphasis is being put on science and not enough on engineering; that engineering should get its rightful place, too.

(No, really. Go read the piece; I'll wait.)

And here we come to the "not quite".

Item: The writer is a civil engineer, so his world is probably very different from mine as an electrical engineer. By background and training, I know that I am actually near the very boundary between engineering and science; two more steps and I would have been a solid-state or electromagnetics physicist. (But I am firmly on the engineering side of the boundary with much of my work.) The point being, the difference is sometimes very fuzzy, and while this is not easy to explain when talking to high school students about career choices, you can start from either side of the line and end up on the other. If I want to recruit more people for advanced degrees in engineering, I am really not going to look away from the basic sciences departments. I know professors with a B.Sc. in physics and doctorates in electrical engineering; I know graduate students, past and present, with the same background. And I know of those who have gone the other way. Like I said, two steps, and I would have.

Item: If I were to go say "Give engineering its rightful place" in many physics departments, I would have metaphorical chalkboard erasers thrown at my head, followed by the chalks, and the transparency projector (because they may not have the budget to upgrade to computer projection systems installed in classrooms). I know what a postdoc in my professional area and in my geographical area gets, starting point, and I know what a postdoc in physics in the same geographical area considers a good starting salary. The ratio is 3/2, and this is shaped purely by the market, not because I do a job 1.5 times harder. Money aside, engineering does not really have the need to be listened to more. People listen to us instinctively. People come to us to fix things, and buy the things we made, because we make things and fix things. People do not think about going to a kinesiologist when they have a broken leg, either, so---"give orthopoedists their rightful place?"

Item: The example he gives towards the end of the article is an unfortunate choice: "The principles that explain how a battery works, for example, are old news. But a lightweight and cost-effective battery pack with enough juice to power a car over long distances remains an elusive goal." The US government happens to have some open programs to fund basic research on that very thing, and I have looked a little into it. There are engineering problems, yes, and there are engineers working on it. There are also people with electrochemistry, chemistry, and physics backgrounds because, well, the existing chemical systems for batteries do not fully cut the mustard yet. Point being, no, we still don't have the basic science in place and the fact that the research being done is very much applied science does not change the fact that an engineer's training would not suffice. Except, maybe, that of a materials engineer. Or chemical engineer. See also, "fuzzy boundary" above.

Item: The items above were the not-quite-correctness; this is where we might argue for outright "wrong".

So science does not directly change the world; it only seeks to understand the world as it is. So engineering aims to alter the physical world. But science does have the power to alter, to modify, to affect maybe the greatest changes of all, and while that is one power it shares with engineering, science keeps the lion's share. Do you know what science can, and must, and does, change?

The way humans think.

The way we see ourselves. The way we think about the universe, and our place in it. The way we evaluate our past; the way we plan our future.

Think about it. Some example key words/phrases here would be "biochemistry," "evolutionary biology," "geology," "astronomy," and "cosmology." And, oh, yes, "atmospheric science."

Science is not displaced, is not dispossessed, does not need a new president to pointedly mention its reinclusion in political discourse from which it had been omitted for so long, simply because it seeks to understand the world as it is. It is feared or ignored or fought against because of the power described above.

In that science has engineering as its ally. We grind the telescope lenses, we make the amplifiers in radio telescopes, we develop the chip-scale bioanalysis tools. The Internet was created for science; it was created by engineers by any description of their vocation; it has affected tremendous social change by easy communication, but also a more quiet social change by easier access to information. Too, technology makes the fruits of science visible, and thus maybe makes users more inclined to look upon the underlying science with favor.

What I am trying to say is, what contribution I can make, I proudly do, as an engineer. I love that my vocation is a verb in English and I love its meaning; I live for the moments when the thing I have put together work as I have designed it to. I know my place in the world and I am proud of it and I try my best, when I speak to up-and-coming young ones, to make them see that place as well.

I know that basic scientists have a much harder time of that, but I know in my bones that they deserve no less. When Mr. Obama said "We will restore science to its rightful place" that frigid January morning, I was actually there, on the National Mall, and my heart rose to my throat at those precise words---I don't think he had any misconception at all. Engineering needs no restoration, engineering has needed no restoration, when the time comes to make something they will come to us engineers---but whatever boost we can give science itself, we must.

Friday, March 19, 2010


The first computer I saw---and played with---was a Sinclair Spectrum-ZX. But the second one, the one on which I took my first programming classes, was the Commodore 64.

I wrote my first BASIC programs on the Commodore (I was very little when we used to play with the Sinclair at home; I vaguely remember copying programs from magazines). Of course, I also played my first serious computer games on the Commodore. Especially there was this one called Wiz of War; we played for hours on two-player mode with friends...

The blue screen. 64K. "LOAD." "RUN". Ah, memories.

Look what they've done.

I don't know if it'll have its own (tiny) operating system; it's said to have support for WinXP, Win7 Aero, OS-X and various Linuxes. Of course, what this really is, is a laptop without a screen; therefore its usability is rather limited. If it will be useless without a TV, it really has two selling points only: As a gaming console, and, well, nostalgia.

I don't think I'll get one, but ah, the nostalgia: I saw this in the morning, and I smiled. Perhaps just that much will be enough to get enough people to open up the wallets.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Artificial Photosynthesis? Awesome.

All our food is, ultimately, from sunlight (and CO2); most everything that moves gets the energy from sunlight, though sometimes by quite a long and circuitous route as in the case of fossil-fuels. Photosynthesis is where it begins, and unless you count the (relatively very, very minor) contributions of solar and solar thermal energy harvesting methods, it was the only way.

Natural photosynthesis, that is.

Here's awesomeness: Folks at the University of Cincinnati developed an artificial photosynthesis method that is more efficient than the natural one, because there is no plant to grow around the photosynthesis center. And here's more awesomeness, from my point of view: Remove excess CO2 from the air, for instance installing these things near populationo centers, and make candy, I mean glucose, or biofuels. I see no downside to this plan.

Well, actually I can see no downside, since this is technically not my area of expertise. But here is the original paper, if you are in a network that can access it. It starts with this:
We present a cell-free artificial photosynthesis platform that couples the requisite enzymes of the Calvin cycle with a nanoscale photophosphorylation system engineered into a foam architecture using the Tngara frog surfactant protein Ranaspumin-2. This unique protein surfactant allowed lipid vesicles and coupled enzyme activity to be concentrated to the microscale Plateau channels of the foam, directing photoderived chemical energy to the singular purpose of carbon fixation and sugar synthesis, with chemical conversion efficiencies approaching 96%.

And ends with:
Undoubtedly, the extraction and large scale implementation of our fully engineered multienzyme system is just beginning, but a photosynthetic foam designed for focused biologic energy conversion offers a new paradigm for carbon fixation and biofuel generation without the biomass limitations of arable land or excess quantities of water.

Let's hope this fulfills its promise.