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Physics vs Engineering November 9, 2008

Posted by keithkchan in Philosophy.

This post originates from the conversation between Mr Hogg and Mr Gruzinov in a seminar.

H: Physics now is very similar to engineering now.

G: What kind of nonsense is this? (BTW, Mr Gruzinov is know to be very straight. )

H: Even Andrei (Mr Gruzinov) writes code now.

This makes me to reflect what’s the boundary between physics and engineering. Let me first state (in my sense) what physics and engineering are. In physics, our ultimate goal is to understand the Nature. We maydo so by observing the universe, doing experiments in the lab, or theorizing the laws of nature on a piece of paper.  On the other hand, engineering focuses on applying the scientific principles to technology. The end products of engineering are usually real appliances, that can be sold in the market. And we usually work on problems that ordianry people never care about. Who care about the fate of the universe 1000 000 000 years later?  Engineers may also calculate, but they only use the equations derived by others (most likely by physicists). You would never expect any new insights from calculations. Most of us think that our work are elegant and engineers work on dirty problems. So in this sense I agree with Mr Gruzinov.

Last year’s Nobel prize in physics was awarded to Albert Fert and Peter Grunberg for discovering the Giant Magnetoresistance (GMR). Although Parks at IBM was the first to apply GMR to computer memory, and eventually led to the technology used in your hard disk, what he did was the engineering work and he did not get the prize. So I think the Nobel committee made the right decision to award the fundamental discovery, rather than the technological applications.

Nowadays, most of us need to use computer to do simulations. This just reflects the fact most of the simple problems are already done, and realistic calculations can no longer be done using just pencils and papers. I am studying the formation of structure in the universe using computer simulations. Some of the techniques I am using may be similar to the engineers used in optimization of building a power plant. That doesn’t mean that I am an engineer (at least I think I am not). So I think the difference between physics and engineering is not the techniques one uses, but the ultimate goal one wants to achieves. So I think Mr Hogg’s attack on Mr Gruzinov is not justified.

Although it seems that I have said some negative things about engineers, we appreciate the efforts and contributions done by them. Without them the laptop I am using will not be possible. We just feel that we work on more elegant and beautiful problems. Just don’t tell your engineer friend about that.



1. 侯 - November 9, 2008


2. mystery reader - November 9, 2008

hi keith. I am amazed. do you think there is something less elegant about finding a better way to optimize an engineering process. both the space of variables and the space of solutions are of comparable size in physics and engineering so that picking out the right solutions and variables to concentrate on is of comparable artistry. youre a chauvinist. Einsteins ghost, can this man really be your heir?

3. einsteins ghost - November 9, 2008

I agree mystery reader(by the way, may I call you mystery, you can call me ghost)

I revoke my previous declaration. david, not keith is my new heir.

4. keithkchan - November 9, 2008


5. keithkchan - November 9, 2008

Mystery and Ghost
This is first time I am called a chauvinist. BTW, you see that I am so tolerant and democratic that I allow the comments that accused me of chauvinist to be posted in this blog.
Well this is philosophy, you can disagree with me. But this kind of thinking , chauvinism or whatever you call it, is prevalent among the physics community.
Even within the physics community, there is no complete harmony. You may have heard of the experimentalists mock the theorists do not know how to operate even the simplest gadgets. Theorists say that experimentalists only do what theorists tell them to do. This kind of thinking can bind the group of people together in a coherent manner. As long as it is not excessive, it is good for the development of the group as a whole.
I think this argument is equivalent to “Is patriotism bad?” I believe that mild patriotism is good.

6. Ahmes - November 10, 2008

Let us remember, mental children, that the real elegant science is math. Without math, your pathetic “physical world” would not even be describable. The physics you chose to observe and describe can only be observed, thus it’s scope is very limited. Your slim and marginal theories depend on observation for demonstration. Mathematics does not need such pointless boundaries. We do not fear infinities and divergences as your infantile thoughts do. Anything you can describe or theorized requires math; thus without math you are useless. So get off your high horse, sir, and remember that mathematics is the true champion of reason.

7. keithkchan - November 10, 2008

Why did you separate the same passage into some many posts? I need to reply one by one and I am a little bit tired now.
Let me tell you that maths is the language of science, and it help us to reason logically. Without it, we would be impossible to describe the nature quantitatively. But its purpose is to describe our physical real world. You can come up some strange mathematical model, but if it doesn’t agree with Nature, we can do nothing but throw it to the hell.

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