Engineering Versus Natural Science?

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Dear readers,

I always receive a lot of questions from prospective university students about engineering and natural science courses: “What is the difference between them? Aren’t they the same?”And on top of that, “do the courses teach the same subjects?”

The answer is “No”. Engineering is not the same as natural science and they definitely do not teach the same things. My lecturer once told me, it is a big crime to say that engineering is natural science (natsci) and vice versa.

Ok, now comes the difficult part: analysing and explaining why engineering and natsci are not the same. I am going to explain this based on my own experience so pardon me if this article doesn’t go along with your experience or knowledge.

First of all, we have to understand the definition of words “engineer” and “scientist”. Quoting from Oxford Dictionary of English:

engineer |ɛndʒɪˈnɪə|
noun
a person who designs, builds, or maintains engines, machines, or structures.

While on the other hand,

scientist |ˈsʌɪəntɪst|
noun
a person who is studying or has expert knowledge of one or more of the natural or physical sciences.

Ok, so we can see very clearly that there is a fundamental difference between the two. Scientist is the one with the “expertise”, with the “concept knowledge” and engineer is the one who “designs, builds and maintains”.

To help understand the concept better, let’s use an example. Let’s imagine that we own a pharmaceutical company that has recently created a dream drug that can cure any disease in the world. The drug is created by a group of scientists in the Research and Development labs of the company. Everything is done on a small scale, with a lot of trial and error. The expertise of the scientists and their detailed knowledge are incorporated into the research process, and there you go: the scientists have successfully created a few milligrams or even micrograms of the drug. Once the drug is tested, verified and approved by public authorities, the drug needs to be mass-produced for general consumption.

Now, to mass-produce something, what we need is a plant, a huge one that can operate 24 hours, 7 days a week to produce our wonder drug. Who will we contact to build the plant? Exactly, we will have to find engineers to build our plant. Scientists will provide the specification on how to reproduce the drug to the engineers or in a very simple term, the recipe of the drug is passed on to the engineers. Now, we can imagine the engineers as a group of chefs where they are given the recipe and required to cook what is written in the recipe. It is the same in this scenario. The engineers will build a plant capable of doing every single operation that is required for the production: stirring, heating, cooling, mixing, separating products, packaging, etc.

Looking at what the scientists and engineers are doing in their respective industry, we can tell that both professions do not possess the same knowledge. It is also clear from the example above that both occupations require different set of knowledge and skills (e.g., the thinking skills and “labour” skills).

Scientists require deep and detailed knowledge about biology, physics, chemistry and mathematics. This is an occupation that requires high accuracy. A medicine usually contains a very small amount of active chemical (less than 5 mg) and this can be very fatal if there’s miscalculation in the dose. On the other hand, engineers are working with equally important matters: the building structures, machinery and safety. Engineers require a different set of knowledge: versatile ability to understand a problem and solve it. In a way, for the engineers, a certain mathematical factor can be determined in a less accurate level (for instance, 1 cm off in a 100 m pipe length can be considered negligible). Hence, both professions have different skills with little overlapping area, which allow them to work together to maximise each other’s capabilities.

Another example that I’d like to use:

We know both engineering and natsci courses incorporate a lot of equations and theories. However, engineering rarely focuses on how the equations are derived in the first place. I am not saying it is unimportant for the engineers to know. Engineers still need to know the basic equations but it is more about how engineer can utilise them to solve the problems they face.

Scientists dig in the problem of equations deeper. They need to know and understand fully on how the equations derived from the first principle. This requires rigorous algebra and proving, which are required for the scientists to create a breakthrough. We can look at Einstein or Newton for this particular skill. They are very good in the derivation of equations, which allowed them to come up with the relativity theorem and Newton’s laws.

Therefore, scientists create all the building blocks in science while engineers utilise science or the “building blocks” to solve the practical problems.

Kevin Surya Widjaja
An engineer executes the concept developed by scientist

In conclusion, since these two courses have very different nature, there are a few factors that you need to weigh in before choosing between the two. If you are a person who tends to be practical and care less about details and would rather work in a larger-scale subject matter, it is best for you to take on the study of engineering. However, if you are a person who likes details and has a massive curiosity on what’s happening behind every single thing (like when Edison asked his primary school teacher: why does it rain?), then you will be an ideal candidate for a natsci course.

There is no such thing as being an engineer is better than being a scientist. In real life, engineers and scientists work as a group; the two occupations are complementary to each other. The world needs both to keep progressing in today’s modern life. Of course there are more things that you need to consider before choosing to study or enroll to either one, but I hope this article helps you to distinguish between the two.

  • Excellent write-up, Kevin. While I was still studying chemical engineering, someone had also told me a comparative analogy.

    As a natural scientist, chemists would be concerned with how to get the most orange juice out of an orange (more attention to quality).

    Chemical engineers, on the other hand, would be more concerned with the most feasible way to get as much juice as possible out of multiple oranges (more attention to quantity).

  • and_trx

    Nice post. Scientists study the world as it is; engineers create the world that has never been. That’s the difference.

  • tdt

    Nicely written, Kev! coming from a natsci background myself, this article explains well how the two areas differ but yet complement each other well.

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