Archive for the ‘Philosophy of Science’ category

“Essential Engineering” on Groks Science

April 5, 2010

posted by: Damon Diehl

I just caught an interesting interview with Dr. Henry Petroski over on the Groks Science Radio Show (a quirky show that I loved long before its co-producer, Charles Lee, moved to my undergraduate alma mater). Petroski is a professor of civil engineering over at Duke, and he’s got a new book out entitled Essential Engineering, which deals with why engineering is essential in the modern world, and how engineering is different from basic science. The subtitle of the book is “Why Science Alone Will Not Solve Our Global Problems.” That phrasing may sound critical of basic science, but that certainly isn’t the intent. Rather Petroski is seeking to elevate the importance of engineering in the public eye so that science and engineering are seen as a partnership and not as a hierarchy. In particular he takes issue with the common misconception that engineering is “just applied science.” On the contrary people often engineer a device before the scientific principles underlying it are understood. This is certainly true in optics. For example magnifying lenses have been used for thousands of years (for example Aristophanes mentions a “crystal lens” in his play The Clouds, circa 420 BCE), but the theory of refraction was not described mathematically until around 1000 CE. (As to who first devised the laws of refraction… I’ll let the debate continue to rage on Wikipedia.)

“Productive Stupidity” or “Failure Is the Only Way to Win the Nobel Prize”

March 2, 2010

I wanted to point people toward a really good article that appeared in the SPIE Professional back in October 2009 entitled “Productive Stupidity” by Martin A. Schwartz. It’s a reprint of his article “The importance of stupidity in scientific research”, which previously appeared in Journal of Cell Science 121, 1771 (2008). The thrust of the article is that “science is supposed to be hard,” and most of the time you’re going to be wrong… at least if you’re doing it right. That fact can be extremely difficult to accept, especially when we have built our entire education system around getting answers “right” on an exam. Even classroom laboratory research is generally focused on reproducing a certain result, rather than self-discovery. The upshot is that most science students leave college still believing that getting the “wrong” result is bad. If you are truly doing new research, then you are testing things that no one has done before, and that means that most of the time what your experiments reveal will not be quite what you expected.  Figuring out the how and the why of unexpected results is what scientific research is really all about. (As Celia recently discovered over at Ph.D.)

And just to drive this point home one more time, I encourage folks to listen to this interview with 2009 Physics Nobel Laureate George E. Smith. Around the 11 minute mark he talks about what it was about the Bell Labs environment that made their discovery of the CCD camera possible. He summarizes it this way:

In the exploratory efforts we had… we thought that if half of the projects you started actually worked, you weren’t being imaginative enough… not taking enough risks.