Your Science T-Shirt Doesn’t Fly

A few months ago Science sent many people a sample of the magazine and a solicitation to subscribe. As seems to be the manner in which these things are done, there were several enticements included in the package. The one that caught our eyes was the free T-shirt.

As shown clearly on an insert, the front of the “collector’s edition” shirt bore a famous old drawing of what has been described as a glider with bat-like wings, which a recumbent aviator could flap through a system of ropes and pulleys. To ensure the “professional in the field of Science, Engineering or Technology” to whom the mailing was directed did not mistake this for a harebrained scheme, beneath the drawing was the artist’s signature and below that his name spelled out fully: Leonardo da Vinci.

What really caught our eyes, however, was what was printed on the back of the T-Shirt: “Aviation. Brought to you by science.” With a subscription to Science the T-shirt was available in sizes up to x-large; to us this slogan was a triple-x-large-tall misrepresentation of the way things really have come to be.

Since its inception, every now and then, the National Science Foundation has defended its support of basic, undirected scientific research with the promise that it leads to engineering achievement and technology. But that linear model of research and development has been repeatedly challenged and disproven. Here in this very mass mailing, Science was reviving this fallacy on the back of a T-shirt. And with perhaps the worst example imaginable.

When the Wright Brothers sought to achieve manned flight, they did look to science for help in answering some fundamental questions. They wrote to the Smithsonian Institution asking for research papers on the subject, but received little of value. Rather than give up, the bicycle mechanics and self-taught engineers designed and conducted their own experiments to gain insight into the shape of wings and propellers.

Isn’t Bernoulli’s law an example of a scientific law that would help with wings and propellers? Articulated in 1738, it states an increase of speed of a fluid is accompanied by a decrease in pressure. But knowing that law, or any physical law, is not sufficient for designing an airplane wing or anything else, there has to first be a concept of a wing to which the law can be applied. Coming up with a crude design, whether by tinkering or by any other means, has to precede applying scientific laws and methods to the concept.

In other words, it was the brothers’ inventiveness and engineering design practice that brought them to the point of knowing what kind of help they could use from the scientific method. It was definitely not science in the abstract that gave them the exact laws and formulas from which they could deduce the configuration of a successful airplane. Like Leonardo’s flying machine, their Wright Flyer existed as a sketch of a mechanical concept before there could be any application of science to its development.

And not only that, but the Wright brothers’ background with bicycles gave them the insight that enabled their success: They conceived the control of a flying machine could be at least in part be similar to a bicycle—turn a handlebar and lean. Although they departed from the ancient idea that flying meant just imitating a bird, they still spent countless hours observing the flights of birds to understand what enabled them to soar. From their observations, the Wrights hit on the concept of wing warping, which proved key to controlling gliders and powered aircraft alike. The concept is embodied in modern aircraft in the use of ailerons to control lateral balance.

It is important that the engineering curriculum—in which mathematics and science and engineering science courses have for so long preceded courses in design—convey to students the truth about the relative roles of science and engineering in the development of technology. Rarely if ever do real-world examples follow the linear “science-precedes-engineering” model. Rather, invention and technical problem solving is more often than not initiated through the challenges of design and proceeds as a collaboration among engineers, scientists, and technicians. Engineers often tinker in search of ways to harness an effect, and scientists—who can themselves be engineers and tinkers, in which case they are known as “engineering scientists”—later bring the rigor of mathematical models and hypotheses validated by experiments to rationalize and optimize a design. It is hard to find any field where the science preceded the engineering. It is also hard to find fields with mature engineering that do not use scientific laws and methods. Scientists and engineers need each other.

The truth of this is becoming increasingly obvious with the inclusion of hands-on design experiences in the first year of engineering curricula. Students, who have not yet been indoctrinated by default into the myth that science precedes engineering, realize how much engineering and design they can do without the seemingly essential and superior subjects.

Like so many engineers, computer scientists have also fallen prey to the “science precedes engineering” myth. The modern conversation about computational thinking presupposes a mathematical and scientific approach to problem-solving. Design is not a concern. The new curriculum proposals focus mostly on abstractions and methods of programming. The electronics and circuits that make it all possible have disappeared from sight. This is paradoxical because the whole field of computer science would not exist were it not for electronics engineers, such as J. Presper Eckert and John Mauchly, seeking to harness the movements of electronics to perform logical operations and calculate numbers.

It behooves us as professionals and educators to drive home this point, not only to emphasize how much of engineering is independent of math and science, but also to impress upon beginning engineering students that they are engaged in the study of a subject that is at least the equal of science and math.

Engineers, above all, should not to be susceptible to marketing myths such as science brings us aviation, rocketry, telephony, or any other technological achievement that in fact has roots solidly in engineering.

This brief essay is adapted from Petroski’s “Refractions” column titled “Flying a Kite,” which appeared in ASEE Prism published by the American Society for Engineering Education.