Science Depends on Engineering

Science Depends on Engineering
Upper image credit: Zachariasen, W. H. J. Am. Chem. Soc. 1932, 54, 3841−3851. Lower image credit: Pinshane Huang, David Muller, Cornell University; Ute Kaiser, Simon Kurasch, University of Ulm; Paper at dx.doi.org/10.1021/nl204423x

Earlier this week, I tweeted about a new paper where an ultrathin (~3 atomic layers) silica glass film was grown on graphene. The group was attempting to study graphene grown on copper-coated quartz, but an air leak changed the reaction conditions, and ended up with pretty cool results. While it’s an impressive result in it’s own right, the structure was predicted in 1932, and it’s amazing how much they look alike.

My original reaction to this paper was to geek out over how well theory predicted the results, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the most impressive part was the fact the authors could create the image of the material in the first place.

The imaging technology depends on engineers. The bottom image above was taken using annular dark field scanning transmission microscopy, which requires some very complicated and very precise equipment. The STEM used in this paper was made by NION, who have a pretty cool page about the design principles involved in some of the major components. Engineering breakthroughs in aberration correction made these images possible. While the scientists taking the image are skilled, and interpretation is important, I think the group who designed the equipment the made it possible deserve some kudos too.

On the other side of the equation, scientific results have to be translated into useful things. I’ve just started reading The Essential Engineer: Why Science Alone Will Not Solve Our Global Problems by Henry Petroski. He makes this argument much more effectively than I could hope to, so I will just recommend reading the book for yourself.

Next time you see a cool scientific result, think about all the engineering it took to get there.

2 comments

I have a lot of respect for scientists. Their theories and concepts chart a course for future development, and they can run circles around me when it comes to proofs and the math involved.

But converting those theories and concepts into practical and profitable products is equally important. That’s where the engineers and technicians come in. Scientists can dream all day about theories, and draw up all kinds of pretty ideas on paper, but it is all vaporware until it is built. Between those pretty papers and real products there is always a gap to fill which is generally taken for granted by the public. So when we marvel about each scientific breakthrough, thank an engineer or technician for the actual device that you can use.

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