A golden age of engineering

In a Twitter exchange with John D. Cook, John mentioned to me that he "heard it said we live in a golden age of engineering and a dark age of science".

That really got me thinking: do we live in a golden age of engineering and a dark age of science? I've spent some time pondering similar questions on this blog, but I suspect my thinking has changed recently.

On the affirmative, Moore's law has been in steady operation for fifty years. Computers really do keep getting smaller, faster, and cheaper. I can do things as an engineer that my predecessors would find fantastical. I can design an object using that cheaper computer, and have it 3-D printed in a week or less. Lots of people have heard of 3-D printing with plastic, but I do it with metal. Not only is the field of engineering more capable, it tackles bigger goals now.

I work as a manufacturing engineer. I'm not only expected to make a product that works; it needs to keep the customers safe, and the people who work for me making it. I need to make sure the medical device I design is bio-compatible. I need to make sure handle of the device is comfortable in the surgeon's hands. I need to make sure the manufacturing process is ergonomically friendly to the expected variation in human body sizes. And you still need to make money. The body of knowledge I have to integrate is way more complicated than that contemplated by any Victorian engineer. I need the assistance of many more domain experts who have studied these things and turned them into bodies of knowledge that deserve to be called science.

On the negative, we haven't been to the moon in forty years. Granted, we don't spend that kind of money on science [engineering] projects anymore. In inflation-adjusted dollars, a moon mission launch alone cost $2.7 billion, and the whole project adjusted for inflation was $170 billion. We spent about $2.7 billion on the Human Genome Project, and that was considered a little steep at the time.

As for technology, we lack the flying cars and interplanetary travel that have been staples of science fiction for nearly 100 years. It is not uncommon to see the claim that either technological or scientific progress has slowed in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Scott Locklin posted a typical example on Taki's Mag in 2009, The Myth of Technological Progress. John Horgan posted a slightly different take just this week on Scientific American, focusing mostly on the poor quality of some contemporary research papers. Bruce Charlton went the furthest, claiming that intelligence in the West has declined over the last 125 years or so.

Ultimately, I don't really believe that technological or scientific or intellectual activity has markedly slowed. I do believe we are interested in different things than we used to be interested in. Science has turned inward, and produces more and more technical work with a narrower audience. Engineering, which is really part of the world of business, produces some science, but modern business is fiercely focused on the bottom line, typically with a very short time horizon.

I have posited a cocktail party theory that science suffers from a lack of experience with practical problems. I suspect there is a synergy between engineering and science that made the scientific revolution possible. Ancient Greek science and modern science are both pretty good, and focus on understanding things for their own sake. However, that explosion of mental activity we now call the scientific revolution came about because science turned from knowledge for its own sake to useful knowledge that allows us to bend nature to our will. We now seem to be turning back to knowledge for its own sake. As an Aristotelian myself, I can't really fault this. However, it probably means that what scientists think of as an interesting problem and what the rest of society sees as an interesting problem will diverge. Ultimately, this probably means that the golden age of engineering will end too, because mental effort will be focused elsewhere.