A Prized Profession

By Henry Petroski

Henry Petroski The announcements of the most recent Nobel Prizes in physics and chemistry had a distinctly welcome ring to them. Instead of honoring abstruse theoretical constructs whose relevance is lost on many a layperson, and even on some engineers, the science prizes for the year 2000 recognized some familiar things and stuff of everyday life—computers and plastics. This striking acknowledgment of engineering achievement by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences was a fitting way to mark one hundred years of the distinguished awards.

Some scientists might have us believe that Alfred Nobel, the chemical engineer who endowed his prizes with the fortune he earned from his invention of dynamite, is turning over in his grave. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, in his will Nobel did not specify that the prizes should go to scientists or scientific feats but should honor achievements that "shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind," a hallmark of engineering. Though often confused, science and engineering are of course distinct but coequal human endeavors: science studies what is; engineering creates what never was. This simple but practical definition, attributed to the rocket engineer Theodore von Karman, highlights the different objectives of those who work in the different fields. At the same time, it reveals how scientists can cross over into the field of engineering, and vice versa.

The Manhattan Project is an excellent example of scientists extending their studies of nature to engineer a new thing. The development of the steam engine, in a time when there was no science of thermodynamics, is an equally classic example of engineers creating something practical before it had a theoretical foundation. In today's world of science and engineering the fields typically advance together. Teams of scientists looking for the most elusive of subatomic particles must engineer elaborate and expensive super machines to detect them. Engineering teams working on designs of lighter but safer airplanes often have to advance the frontiers of materials science to achieve their goals. illustration courtesy of The Nobel Prize Internet Archive

In spite of the will of their endower, the predilection of the first Nobel Prize selection committees for science over engineering has long been a sore point with many observers. It was not until the ninth prize in physics recognized the achievement of "wireless telegraphy," which we know as radio, that engineering accomplishment was acknowledged. And this was in the age of the Wright Brothers, who perhaps themselves should have been strong contenders for a Nobel Prize. With the establishment of a "new Nobel Prize" in economics in 1969, many other fields that had no explicit mention in Nobel's will sought their own categories of prizes. The Nobel Foundation did not wish to dilute further the impact of the select awards, however, and so efforts to endow distinct Nobel Prizes in mathematics, engineering, and other fields were rebuffed by the foundation. It was in the wake of this development that the National Academy of Engineering established its own distinguished award, the Charles Stark Draper Prize, endowed by the M.I.T. Draper Laboratories in memory of their founder. The first Draper Prize was awarded in 1989, to electrical engineer Jack Kilby and the late Robert Noyce, for their independent development of the integrated circuit, without which the computer would not be the miniaturized portable device that it is today.illustration courtesy of The Nobel Prize Internet Archive

It should be no small satisfaction to the engineering community that the engineer Kilby, whose invention was accompanied by advances in the physics of how electrons move in silicon, has shared the centennial Nobel Prize in physics with two scientists. Zhores Alferov and Herbert Kroemer were recognized for independently developing electronic components that have made small laser technology practical in so many of the communications products that we use daily, including CD players and bar-code readers, engineered devices of the first order. The 2000 Nobel Prize in chemistry went to three scientists who are responsible for creating an electricity-conducting plastic that has already been applied in the photography industry and promises to make brighter and more energy efficient cell-phone and computer displays than are now common in consumer electronics devices. This is another recognition of distinctly engineering achievements.

Engineering will again be in the spotlight in February, when this year's winners of the Draper Prize are announced and awarded in Washington, D.C., during National Engineers Week. The occasion will be an especially significant one, for it will mark the change of the awarding of the Draper Prize from a biennial to an annual event, and it will also mark the awarding of a new engineering prize administered by the National Academy. The Fritz J. and Dolores H. Russ Prize will honor achievements in an emerging engineering field. Initially, the Russ Prize will honor advances in bioengineering. Both the Draper and Russ prizes carry world-class honoraria of $500,000.

It is especially fitting that in this Nobel centennial year, which coincides with the beginning of the new millennium, all these prizes remind us that the greatest benefits to society result when science and engineering work in partnership. That promises to be no less true in the coming decades, centuries, and millennia.

Henry Petroski is A. S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University. His latest book is The Book on the Bookshelf.