The Difference Between Science and Engineering
Michael Alba posted on October 24, 2017 |
Elon Musk weighs in on who’s better: scientists or engineers.

If you’re reading these words on, there’s a good chance you’re an engineer or engineer-to-be. If so, welcome!

But not all readers are engineers, so let’s take a moment to welcome our friends from the science department. Welcome physicists! Welcome chemists! Welcome biologists! And welcome to the rest of the lab coats, star-gazers and hypothesizers out there.

Now that we’re all here, I thought it might be fun to talk about what sets us apart. What’s the difference between scientists and engineers? For that matter, what’s the difference between science and engineering?

Any takers? No? Okay, I’ll start.


Origins of Science and Engineering

The best place to start any discussion is at the beginning, so let’s turn back the clock of human history to see if we can pinpoint when science and engineering began.

Who was the first engineer? The farthest back we can go is about 2600 BCE, where we find Imhotep, chancellor to the Egyptian pharaoh Djoser. Imhotep is credited with designing the first Egyptian pyramid, the Pyramid of Djoser. It may not be much by today’s standards, but the 62-meter (203-foot) tall structure was revolutionary at the time.

The step Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara, designed by Imhotep. (Photo courtesy of Olaf Tausch.)
The step Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara, designed by Imhotep. (Photo courtesy of Olaf Tausch.)
The first scientist is a bit trickier to put a name to, but one of the strongest contenders appeared much later than Imhotep on the human timeline: Ibn al-Haytham, born 960 AD in what is now Iraq. Ibn al-Haytham used an early form of the scientific method to make discoveries in optics and astronomy centuries before the European Renaissance, arguably making him the world’s first theoretical physicist.

It would seem, then, that engineers have been around for quite a bit longer than scientists. This offers a pretty big clue as to what differentiates the two domains, and we’ll return to it in a moment. But first, let’s figure out why we can say Imhotep was an engineer and Ibn al-Haytham was a scientist, even though neither of those terms existed at the time.

Why is Imhotep recognizable as an engineer? Well, the only real answer is that he built something, a pyramid that persists to this day. What’s more, he built it for a practical purpose—namely, to house the body of dearly departed Djoser. From Imhotep through to our present day, engineers have been characterized as focusing on the tangible and the practical.

Ibn al-Haytham, possibly the world's first scientist.
Ibn al-Haytham, possibly the world's first scientist.
The case for Ibn al-Haytham being a scientist is slightly more subtle: he was a scientist because he utilized the scientific method. This method is what makes science so powerful, imbuing it with rigor and authority. The scientific method doesn’t itself provide any answers, but it does provide something much better: the key to getting the answers.

Give a man a scientific fact, he’ll learn for a day; teach a man the scientific method, he’ll learn for a lifetime.

What Drives Scientists and Engineers?

Now the difference between scientists and engineers is starting to take shape—it seems like it comes down to motive. Engineers do what they do because they want to solve some real-world problem:

  • Problem: The pharaoh needs a majestic place to store his bones and trinkets.
  • Solution: Build a huge pyramidal tomb out of limestone.

In contrast, what drives scientists is the pursuit of knowledge itself. Scientists continuously ask “How does the universe work?” and then apply the scientific method to refine their answers.

One insight that we gain from the first engineer Imhotep and the first scientist Ibn al-Haytham being separated by about 4,000 years is that, clearly, science is not necessary for engineering. Imhotep must have had some knowledge of nature’s workings in order to build the Pyramid of Djoser, but he didn’t require any rigorous scientific theories to do so.

It’s kind of like building a sandcastle: even young children can intuit how to make one stand, even though they don’t know the first thing about how gravity works or how sand is formed. In the same way, engineers can often achieve their goal (finding a solution to a practical problem) even without knowing the relevant science.

Well, not quite.

The Scientific Method. (Image courtesy of Wikipedia user ArchonMagnus.)
The Scientific Method. (Image courtesy of Wikipedia user ArchonMagnus.)
While Imhotep may have been able to get away with it, engineers today have to be pretty well-versed in science to do their jobs effectively. This is because the more complicated your engineering problem, the more tools you’ll need to use in order to solve it. And the most important tool in any engineer’s belt is—what else?—science.

This makes perfect sense, of course. My goal as an engineer is to solve some practical problem, that is, some problem situated in the natural world. To do that, it sure would be nice to know how the natural world works. And this is exactly what science aims to tell us!

So, to an engineer, science provides a kind of guide for nature. By reading this guide, engineers can get to know the pieces that they’re playing with, how they fit together, and how to exploit them to solve engineering problems.


Science vs Engineering - Which is Better?

“At its heart, engineering is about using science to find creative, practical solutions. It is a noble profession.”

-Queen Elizabeth II

“Science is about knowing, engineering is about doing.”

-Henry Petroski

The two quotations given above (both taken from our Top 10 Engineering Quotes) succinctly sum up the difference between science and engineering. They reinforce the idea that science is a tool of engineering, but science and engineering each have their own distinct goals. Science aims to know; engineering aims to do.

Naturally, there’s a lot of overlap between scientists and engineers. Since engineers use science as their primary tool, they often contribute to scientific knowledge in the process. Scientists, too, often have occasion to engineer: designing a scientific experiment, for example, is certainly an engineering project (Problem: Figure out what happened at the beginning of the universe; Solution: build an enormous particle accelerator).

Because of this overlap, there’s a lot of fluidity between science and engineering. It’s really not a binary distinction, and despite our human taste for tribalism, many people could accurately call themselves both a scientist and an engineer. Furthermore, the domains are mutually supporting; scientific advancements beget engineering advancements beget scientific advancements, and so on.

So, which is better: science or engineering?

A lot of people from both camps have their own opinions about this. For example, engineering superstar Elon Musk doesn’t hesitate to pick engineering over science, despite his educational background in physics.

Bernard Charles, the CEO of Dassault Systèmes, holds a PhD in mechanical engineering, but is nonetheless pushing his company more and more into the realm of science.

In light of what we’ve seen, though, the question of which domain is better—engineering or science—is ultimately misguided, since neither discipline can function without the other. Science and engineering are both necessary for driving technological advancements in our society.

So, if you’re a student choosing between a degree in engineering or a degree in science, don’t fret that you’ll lock yourself in one way or the other—the skills that you’ll pick up in either case will serve you well, whether you want to solve real-world problems or answer deep questions about the universe… or both!

Scientists and Engineers – A Winning Combination

At the end of the day, scientists and engineers both play a vital role in human progress, and the gap between them isn’t as wide as it seems. Really, it comes down to whether you’re driven to learn everything you can about a topic, or learn just enough so that you can do something practical with your knowledge (and remember: the two aren’t mutually exclusive).

Are you a tinkerer who likes tearing things apart and putting them back together? Engineering might be for you.

Do you gaze up at the stars and yearn to know exactly what makes them shine so bright? Sounds like a scientist.

Of course, every engineer and every scientist has their own opinion about this topic. 

So, what do you think? What differentiates science and engineering, and which is more important?

Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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