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Doug Axe: The culture of engineering vs. the culture of biology, and what Hidden Figures can tell us about that

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From Douglas Axe, author of Undeniable, at The Stream:

Hidden Figures — the true story of three brilliant African-American women who proved themselves in a 1960s NASA culture dominated by white men — is sure to inspire. The film is filled with emotive lessons, most powerfully a vindication of the hope that those who persevere honorably for a just cause will not be disappointed.

Another lesson, more pragmatic, occurred to me as the drama unfolded. Having migrated in my own career from the measurable-fact culture of engineering to the more descriptive culture of biology, I felt a tinge of nostalgia as I watched a roomful of nerds with their calculators and chalk boards working together to find the answer to a pressing question: How can we bring an orbiting astronaut back safely to Earth?

Notice the very pre-post-truth essence of that phrase find the answer. Engineers have always taken for granted that clearly posed questions have uniquely correct answers — there to be found by anyone with the skill to find them, and unambiguously recognized as correct when found. The joy of Hidden Figures is that it sweeps away our prejudicial attitudes as to who might have these requisite skills.

Evolutionary biology would have a hard time recognizing that kind of skill set. Darwin, born into the privileged life of English gentry, didn’t really have to solve practical problems. He had the luxury of concerning himself more with persuasion and influence than calculation or invention. More.

Nothing has changed, as it happns. Unlike the hidden figures, Darwin’s followers can arrange the facts to suit their convenience and the call in traditional media to admire them. Although the latter, come to think of it, are an ever-diminishing ally. Thee’s one cange that might prefigure other changes.

See also: Nature: “Unhelpful to exclude conservative voices from debate”

and

The alt right, popular media, and Darwin

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2 Replies to “Doug Axe: The culture of engineering vs. the culture of biology, and what Hidden Figures can tell us about that

  1. 1
    Seversky says:

    Of course there is a difference in the cultures of science and engineering. Engineers work with what we already know to design and build structures or machines. Science is trying to find out what we don’t yet know without even knowing if it will be useful in any way.

    When Boeing engineers design and build an aircraft that has to carry hundreds of people safely each time over thousands of flights, they don’t use new and untested materials or even try to discover them. They use materials that have been well-tested and whose properties are known in great detail and with a high degree of confidence. They have to or a lot of lives and money will be lost.

    That is why engineers can be so smugly condescending about biology. They spend their professional lives dealing with near-certainties or trying to achieve those that they are confident are just within their reach. They don’t spend their working lives amidst the uncertainty of the unknown or partially-known. They are not working at the frontiers of human knowledge but safely inside them.

  2. 2

    SV @1:
    ” … Of course there is a difference in the cultures of science and engineering. Engineers work with what we already know to design and build structures or machines. Science is trying to find out what we don’t yet know without even knowing if it will be useful in any way. … ”

    This is not entirely true. For instance in the engineering field of Software Development, my field for some 4 decades, much time and effort is spent on reverse engineering of a complex piece of software where there is little or no documentation nor availability of the original designers/developers.
    Likewise, from what I gather in the various fields of micro-biology, such as Biomimetics, much time and effort is expended in in reverse engineering efforts to tease out the designs that are hidden from researchers.

    It seems that success in both fields comes from pursuit and exposure of hidden designs.

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