As I said in my tweet of yesterday, engineers and technicians designed and built the Mars Science Laboratory (which includes the Curiosity rover), not scientists. Under technician, I include those who do the hands-on work of fabricating, assembling, and testing , but I did not have room in my 140 characters to list all of the categories, nor will I here.
Is this an important distinction? As an engineer and educator, I think so. When I worked on the first planetary spacecraft at J.P.L. almost 50 years ago, I remember the media constantly talking about the brilliant young scientists that made these miraculous machines. There were instruments on the spacecraft that would produce data of interest to scientists, but the people who made the spacecraft were neither scientists, nor always that young. This bit of misunderstanding also brings us the term “rocket scientist”. Wehner Von Braun and associates were definitely engineers. Scientists search for understanding. Engineers work to produce specific tangible products, usually according to a schedule and budget. And in the case of products such as spacecraft, they tend to stay away from the “cutting edge” of technology in deference to such things as demonstrated reliability. There were early integrated circuits available when I worked at JPL, but we used discrete electrical components because of lack of long-term data on the more sophisticated devices.
There was a pretty good book written on the difference between science and engineering, and in particular the nature of engineering, some 20 years ago (1993). I am biased toward it, because I wrote it. The title is Flying Buttresses, Entropy, and O-Rings, and it is published by Harvard Press. Click the book button on the right to find out more about it. I wrote it, because I was so frustrated by the unwillingness of people to discriminate between science and engineering. The book has not done much toward solving the problem. That is understandable. It is easier not to discriminate. Science and Engineering do overlap, and both are important to us and to each other. Particle physicists need big machines, and designers of integrated circuits need to understand tunneling, and soon quantum theory. Both scientists and engineers use jargon, acronyms, and equations. Engineers apply the knowledge of science and doing so give it economic validity. But in general the above generalization holds. And life designing and building spacecraft is much different than working with string theory or DNA.
Engineers and technicians tend to work on projects in groups, sometimes very large ones. If you saw the people hugging and high-fiving each other after the success of the Curiosity landing, you were looking at part of an outstanding team of engineers and technicians —so good that they don’t need workshops on team building. The life is one of working for a shared goal as well as individual accomplishment. Historians may give credit for a complex accomplishment to an individual engineer, but that is more to simplify history, than reflect actuality. And as technology becomes more complex, there is even less of that happening. Who was responsible for the internet, the Boeing 777, and the Tesla car? You may get the name of the an inventor, a founder, a funder, a president of the company, or even a chief engineer, but not of the engineers and technicians who were responsible for bringing them forth.
Of course science has similarities. You never hear of the people who do not make extraordinary discoveries, nor the people who staff the labs. But in my opinion, engineers and technicians are less motivated by individual glory than scientists, and that is good, because people motivated by individual glory are not the best of team members. Engineers and technicians definitely like to be admired, respected, given raises, promoted, noticed in their discipline and complimented on their work by their peers and managers. But success of a project carries a reward in itself, especially if it is a long and difficult one When I saw the people jumping up and down with joy and tears when the Curiosity landing was successful, I became nostalgic for the time when I was doing that. There isn’t much of that among university faculty members.