A mechanical engineer told me Science isn't useful?

  • #1
physicsdude30
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I talked to a mechanical engineer the other day, and he said "Science and physics isn't all that useful." :confused::confused:

I'm curious what a good response to that would be?

He said when he works on his projects, the "big picture" is the project, and Science and other aspects are only small details or parts to the whole. He said physics ignores very important details when he works on his projects, such as "friction", etc. He said if you get lost in the details like physics you'll miss the forest from the trees. He said, "We'll leave theories and hypotheses to the physicists. I'm a no nonsense type of guy who likes to be practical. If something's not useful and is 'theories', I don't care."

Any ideas for comebacks?
 

Answers and Replies

  • #2
NeoDevin
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I talked to a mechanical engineer

There's your problem!

*runs and hides*
 
  • #3
mgb_phys
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Any ideas for comebacks?
If a machine isn't working does he look for evidence of damage to a part? Does he try running the machine after removing/replacing certain parts?
or does he just roll dice to work out what's wrong?
That's science.

On the other hand, in most of fluid dynamics, aerodynamics and some parts of stress calculation I would rather have a large engineering safety margin than a 'theory' which assumes a spherical horse running in vacuum!
 
  • #4
Dembadon
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... He said physics ignores very important details when he works on his projects, such as "friction", etc. ...

:confused:

I'm sorry, but I have a hard time believing anyone with an engineering degree would make a statement like that. Perhaps he was joking? If he wasn't, I'm going to go ahead and say that he was talking out of his rectum.
 
  • #5
mgb_phys
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physics ignores very important details when he works on his projects, such as "friction"
If he said physics textbooks/lectures/students ignore details like friction he would be perfectly correct (at least at an undergrad level)

How many questions about projectiles do you get here that ignore air resistance?
 
  • #6
Dembadon
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If he said physics textbooks/lectures/students ignore details like friction he would be perfectly correct (at least at an undergrad level)

How many questions about projectiles do you get here that ignore air resistance?

So calculating fluid, sliding, and rolling friction are exclusive to engineering problems? Does one not learn about friction in classical mechanics?

Edit: I think I'm just having problems with the choice of words. To me, given that engineering is just a sub-discipline of physics, his statement sounds similar to an actuary claiming that mathematics ignores probability theorems.
 
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  • #7
fasterthanjoao
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Sounds to me like your friend is rather ignorant! It happens that people get preconceived ideas about certain subjects (though in this case, somehow, all of science..) and they just blanket believe it from then on: seems as though this is the situation your friend finds himself in, a remnant from a high school physics course he perhaps didn't enjoy.

Next time your friend tries to use GPS (I choose this for the sake of practicality, I think you could probably replace it with any object you can possibly think of), kindly remind him that, as a non-believer in science, he isn't allowed. General relativity doesn't like him either. :smile:
 
  • #8
turbo
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My, my. Is it possible that the OP has spoken to an ME with a talent for "human engineering" and has wrangled a job that requires no actual skill? I worked with such an ME about 25 years ago. He is an Indian engineer with tons of Dale Carnegie courses under his belt, and he treated people under him with absolute disdain. I can't think of any people (OK, maybe one) in that company that were more hated. He showed nothing but rudeness and dismissal to people that were doing their best to advance the goals of the company. If he ever gets to upper-level management in any company, I will buy derivatives betting against it in a heartbeat.

BTW: I apologize for going postal over a jerk so far back that many of you had not been alive then. At least you missed the experience. BONUS!!!!!!!!!
 
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  • #9
Cyrus
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I talked to a mechanical engineer the other day, and he said "Science and physics isn't all that useful." :confused::confused:

I'm curious what a good response to that would be?

He said when he works on his projects, the "big picture" is the project, and Science and other aspects are only small details or parts to the whole. He said physics ignores very important details when he works on his projects, such as "friction", etc. He said if you get lost in the details like physics you'll miss the forest from the trees. He said, "We'll leave theories and hypotheses to the physicists. I'm a no nonsense type of guy who likes to be practical. If something's not useful and is 'theories', I don't care."

Any ideas for comebacks?

Sure: "You're a clown."

Enough said.
 
  • #10
waht
1,497
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I know an experienced electrical engineer that doesn't believe in quantum mechanics. After days of discussions and explanations, I gave up. I probably pissed him off too.
 
  • #11
bassplayer142
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I know an experienced electrical engineer that doesn't believe in quantum mechanics. After days of discussions and explanations, I gave up. I probably pissed him off too.


He didn't take a course in solid state physics? We were shown from the ground up with energy band diagrams and such.
 
  • #12
Kajahtava
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Hmm, this whole scientia sibi / scientia homini is a bit awkward to me.

What is practical use? makes life easier? why do we want life to be easier? to do more stuff we want to do, why? because we like to do those things.

Why do we practice pure science? because we like the search for knowledge as a hobby.

It's the same thing, the former is just for a person who has one hobby less than pure scientists, a pursuit of knowledge, the thrill of solving complex puzzles, if you like.
 
  • #13
chhitiz
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tell him that if it wasn't for theories and hypotheses, even the steam engine wouldn't be possible. engineering is only the practical application of whatever science teaches us.
 
  • #14
BobG
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1) You always run into a few who survived their college classes as opposed to actually learning the material. A lot of those just hope to wind up in a job that's not too challenging.

2) Quite a few of those still perform well on a job they've held for several years because experience is its own kind of knowledge. Quite a few nicely laid out designs just don't work because of variation in parts, etc. If you've seen enough similar problems, experience can be a good guide for determining which parts of the design most likely have to be tweaked. (That person is still going to have a hard time if he moves on into a new job.)

Even in classes, I've had a few circuits where the ideal values just don't work (mainly because your real parts don't have ideal values). The two options seemed to be to hopefully figure out which part(s) were the main cause of the problem, swapping new parts in and seeing what happened, and estimating what value for the key parts would give you the desired output - or grabbing several parts of the desired values and selecting only parts that are very close to the ideal values (that could get a little tedious with a lot of parts).
 
  • #15
Phrak
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Yeah, well, after the science is done, you need the engineers to engineer and write emails, then reengineer and write more stuff and rereengineer write alot more emails, and someday they might get it right, but don't take it to the bank. 90% of them don't really engineer anyway, and you try to converse with them in the field in which they are titled it shows.
 
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  • #16
joelupchurch
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tell him that if it wasn't for theories and hypotheses, even the steam engine wouldn't be possible. engineering is only the practical application of whatever science teaches us.

I think you have the cart before the horse. Modern Thermodynamics started with the study of how steam engines work (Carnot:Reflections on the Motive Power of Fire). Newcomen and Watt didn't use theory to design their machines.

For that matter, Engineers were building buildings and bridges for thousands of years before Statics was developed. The Parthenon and Chartres were built using nothing but rule of thumb.

I don't suppose that Electronics and Electrical Engineering could have gotten very far without the theoretical work of Maxwell et al, but even in this area, Edison didn't seem to have much use for theory. Even when you have a useful theory, a huge amount of trial and error goes into learning how to apply the theory. Remember the saying, "In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they are not."

I suggest reading the book by L. Sprague De Camp, "The Ancient Engineers".
 
  • #17
Kajahtava
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For that matter, Engineers were building buildings and bridges for thousands of years before Statics was developed. The Parthenon and Chartres were built using nothing but rule of thumb.
The Parthenon?

I thought the entire acropolis was supposed to be a work of mathematical perfection.
 
  • #18
TheStatutoryApe
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The Parthenon?

I thought the entire acropolis was supposed to be a work of mathematical perfection.

But which came first? The philosophers mathematical perfection? or the rules of thumb that worked so well?
 
  • #19
mgb_phys
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But which came first? The philosophers mathematical perfection? or the rules of thumb that worked so well?

It's one of the great stories of British engineering.
Britain's railways in the first half of the 19C, were built by illiterate northerners who didn't trust figures so just massively over-engineered everything. It's called a margin of ignorance - like a margin of safety.

The French however had the best engineering schools and the most brilliant mathematicians and they built bridges that were perfectly designed.
Unfortunately they didn't understand about things like stress concentrations that meant a material is only a few % as strong in real life as it is in the textbook.

The result (according to British engineers) is that lines built by Stephenson and Locke are still being used today, while everything built in Europe before Eiffel fell down.

It's not really true - but makes a good story.
 
  • #20
joelupchurch
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The Parthenon?

I thought the entire acropolis was supposed to be a work of mathematical perfection.

The math was for esthetic purposes, not engineering. The Greeks had all sorts of ideas about what ratios and proportions were esthetically pleasing. The Pythagorean mystery cult also built all sorts for numbers into buildings they were constructing. You can see a lot of this numerlogy carried forward in Plato.

When I was taking number Ancient Architecture, when my professor was talking about the Pythagoreons in relation to a temple in Sicily. I pointed out that the temple had 6 columns on the short side and 13 on the long side which meant the spaces between the columns were 5 and 12. 52+122=132 which is called a Pythagorean triple. Oddly enough, no one had noticed that before.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pythagorean_triple" [Broken]

My professor ended up writing a paper about architecture and the Pythagoreons and I got a nice footnote in it.
 
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  • #21
dacruick
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hes a fool.
 
  • #22
You know what they call the person that graduates bottom of his Engineering class don't you?
 
  • #23
Brian_C
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I've encountered quite a few "engineers" who believe that theoretical knowledge is useless in the "real world". These guys should take up plumbing and leave science/engineering to the smart kids.
 
  • #24
Galteeth
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I've encountered quite a few "engineers" who believe that theoretical knowledge is useless in the "real world". These guys should take up plumbing and leave science/engineering to the smart kids.


I run a music venue. I generally do the sound.
It's a different field, but I have observed that people with degrees in sound engineering and music management have absolutely no clue how to do sound or manage business. In my observation, most of what they have learned is "under ideal conditions" that never actually exist in the real world.
 
  • #25
Cyrus
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I run a music venue. I generally do the sound.
It's a different field, but I have observed that people with degrees in sound engineering and music management have absolutely no clue how to do sound or manage business. In my observation, most of what they have learned is "under ideal conditions" that never actually exist in the real world.

I think sound engineer in that context is like train engineer, or building services engineer.
 
  • #26
D H
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It's a different field, but I have observed that people with degrees in sound engineering and music management have absolutely no clue how to do sound or manage business.
Well, of course. One way that professors in engineering and science deal with students who have absolutely no business becoming engineers or scientists is to gently suggest they change their majors. "Oh, so you have an interest in music? Maybe you should think about a career in sound engineering or music management."

=================================

Back to the topic at hand: In a sense, the person referenced in the original post was correct. He/she was correct in the narrow sense of what knowledge is useful in the field of mechanical engineering. Most of the upper level undergrad and almost all of the graduate level courses that a physics major takes are more or less useless knowledge in the realm of mechanical engineering. Mechanical engineering is, for the most part, applied Newtonian mechanics, and I mean Newtonian mechanics strictly.

Even the sophomore/junior level classical mechanics course taken by physics majors isn't particularly useful to mechanical engineers because that course typically spends a good deal of time on Lagrangian and Hamiltonian formulation. Useless information! Then it wastes even more time (MechE perspective, of course) in deriving special relativity. Mechanical engineers live in a low-speed world of forces and torques.

So. Physics is not particularly useful to the everyday work done by working mechanical engineers. So, big deal. The person is over-generalizing from what is immediately useful to hima to what is useful to society as a whole.

---------------

aYes, I'm being sexist, by saying "him", but years of work as a physicist-by-training, engineer-by-practice combined with a mental image of a hard-nosed, pointy-haired engineer combined with Bayes Law says that I'm probably right. That said, I have had two bosses in the past who emulated Dilbert's boss to a T. One was male, the other female. Women can be just as dumb, hard-headed, narrow-minded and as can men.
 
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  • #27
joelupchurch
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I've encountered quite a few "engineers" who believe that theoretical knowledge is useless in the "real world". These guys should take up plumbing and leave science/engineering to the smart kids.

From my experience, a skilled plumber or electrician or machinist is valuable resource who should be listened to carefully. My father was a master electrician at the factory where he worked. The Chief Electrical Engineer would have his new engineers follow my father around to learn how to do their job.

Engineering is what you learn after you graduate from school.

A smart engineer knows to listen to the machinists or electronic technicians who are building his brainchild.
 
  • #28
Astronuc
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I talked to a mechanical engineer the other day, and he said "Science and physics isn't all that useful." :confused::confused:

I'm curious what a good response to that would be?

He said when he works on his projects, the "big picture" is the project, and Science and other aspects are only small details or parts to the whole. He said physics ignores very important details when he works on his projects, such as "friction", etc. He said if you get lost in the details like physics you'll miss the forest from the trees. He said, "We'll leave theories and hypotheses to the physicists. I'm a no nonsense type of guy who likes to be practical. If something's not useful and is 'theories', I don't care."

Any ideas for comebacks?
I wouldn't bother with a comeback. That will not change his mind.

Science and physics are of course useful. Engineering is nothing more than applied physics, and practicing engineers and technicians practice their trade with the tools and methods developed by scientists and those engineers who understand the physics.

We apply theory and develop methods. One can't do one without the other.
 
  • #29
BobG
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We apply theory and develop methods. One can't do one without the other.

Knowing how things behave in the world isn't the same as knowing why things behave the way they do. Reading some of the posts in this thread remind me of how Kepler developed his laws of planetary motion without any idea why those laws might be true.

In fact, not understanding the reason behind his laws is the reason it took him about 10 years to go from the first 2 laws to the 3rd law, in spite of the fact that the 2nd and 3rd laws are so closely related they're practically just different aspects of the same law.

Of course, that 10 year lag shows there are disadvantages to not knowing the 'why' behind the 'what', even if it's possible to function just knowing a lot of 'whats'.
 
  • #30
Astronuc
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Knowing how things behave in the world isn't the same as knowing why things behave the way they do.
True, but knowing how works for a limited number of situations, especially if it's a periodic and repetitive phenomenon.

Knowing why a phenomenon happens allows one to extend the range of applicability.

If an engineer uses a tool or method that he or she didn't develop, it's because someone else learned the 'why' and developed the tool or method.
 
  • #31
You know what they call the person that graduates bottom of his Engineering class don't you?

They call that person an Engineer.

That's the joke anyway. The same applies to doctors.
 
  • #32
elect_eng
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the "big picture" is the project, and Science and other aspects are only small details or parts to the whole.
This is often true. The science underlies everything and is critically important, but it is only one aspect of an engineering project. Funding, meeting cost estimates and budgets, meeting schedules and timelines, design issues, meeting specifications, testing, safety etc are all important too.

He said physics ignores very important details when he works on his projects, such as "friction", etc.
Physics generally tries not to ignore anything important, but some topics in physics can be limited for some applications. For example I took a classical mechanics class in the physics department, it used the Lagrange formulation and completely ignored friction. This class is critically important to understand higher level physics, but is almost useless to a mechanical engineer doing real world problems. I took dynamics in the ME department and friction was considered critical to any calculation.

He said if you get lost in the details like physics you'll miss the forest from the trees.
This can sometimes happen in engineering. An approximation that is simple and gets you in the 1-10 percent regime is more useful than a complex theory that gets you to 0.00001 percent and takes years to calculate on a computer.

He said, "We'll leave theories and hypotheses to the physicists. I'm a no nonsense type of guy who likes to be practical.
So, he doesn't care about general relativity, but certainly finds Newton's Laws useful. It's hard to understand his point of view from a few statements taken out of context.

If something's not useful and is 'theories', I don't care."
Well, he only cares about getting the answers. I don't agree with this approach, but I often see it among some engineers. They worry about missing the forest for the trees, but they miss that the forest is part of a continent, which is part of the earth, which is part of the solar system, which is part of a galaxy, which is part of a universe. I find that very sad.
 
  • #33
physicsdude30
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So, he doesn't care about general relativity, but certainly finds Newton's Laws useful. It's hard to understand his point of view from a few statements taken out of context.

Well, he only cares about getting the answers. I don't agree with this approach, but I often see it among some engineers. They worry about missing the forest for the trees, but they miss that the forest is part of a continent, which is part of the earth, which is part of the solar system, which is part of a galaxy, which is part of a universe. I find that very sad.

It's interesting, when he said he doesn't find Science all that interesting or useful, he said one exception was he found special relativity interesting in school.

Something I didn't include, he's actually a relative. The other day I was watching TV with him and some others. The character was a scientist who was acting very excited because he wanted to make some scientific discoveries. My relative started laughing and said, "What a nerd!"

My relative would also make fun of me when I was younger because I've always been interested in Science.
 
  • #34
physicsdude30
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One way I was thinking of this "Big Picture vs. Details Thinker" is an analogy. Isaac Newton was a big picture thinker. He saw an apple fall from a tree. Everyone else around him would think about the here and now detail, "The apple fell from the tree." Newton instead saw something more universal, gravitation, a big broad picture. Now let's say I'm a head coach in a NBA Finals game. The big picture is the game. The laws of physics are details, even if more universal. The economics are more universal, even if more universal. The same for mitochondria and biology. If you focus on one of these you loose sight of the big picture. Then the big picture vs. details again gets reverse when you look at the perspective of an economist or biologist, they think the basketball game is a here and now detail.

Or someone hears a geologist on the news say how plate tectonics will be in 200 million years from now. Most viewers will probably think of these as details, while their families and jobs are the big picture. However, from the same type of deal most now would say Galileo was a big picture thinker while those who opposed him were looking at here and now details. However, from their perspective they probably thought whether the Sun revolves around the Earth or vice versa was a detail they didn't care about, and that their families/harvest time was the big picture.

Just pondering things here. Anyway, I'm just curious how you defend yourself against people who say you're a details rather than big picture thinker because you're very interested in Science?
 
  • #35
Dembadon
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... My relative started laughing and said, "What a nerd!"

My relative would also make fun of me when I was younger because I've always been interested in Science.

I'm sorry, but your relative sounds like a pompous jerk with a falsely elevated self-image. Next time he makes fun of you, tell him to grow up.
 

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