Reflections on the Year Ahead: Engineers, Science, and the Legacy of 2020


It sounds like a cliché at this point, but I’ll say it anyway: 2020 has been an unforgettable year.

Not unforgettable like a wedding day, or a tropical vacation, or a meteor shower. Unforgettable like the time I was alone in the car, in the winter, driving myself to a hospital as I suffered from both appendicitis and a kidney stone, at the same time.

Was 2020 really so bad? Can a virus cast a shadow over an entire year? The answer to that question depends on various things: your temperament, your ideas about human health, perhaps even your political affiliation.

For me, there was definitely a shadow, and it was a dark and ominous one. This shadow extends beyond SARS-CoV-2, beyond infectious disease, beyond the interminable stories of worldwide anxiety, hardship, and tragedy—and I think that engineers have a role to play in dispelling it.

 

Science in the Limelight and in the Lab

The politicization of science is not a new phenomenon, but I believe that it reached its apotheosis sometime in the year 2020.

I’m an electrical engineer. In other words, I’m an applied scientist. I apply scientific (and mathematical) concepts to the design and analysis of electrical circuits and signal-processing systems. Regardless of my philosophical inclinations, I must work in a world of objective empirical and logical truth.

If I don’t power the op-amp, no amplification will occur. If I don’t calculate the derivative correctly, the neural network doesn’t train. If I don’t size the resistor accurately, the LED will burn.

 

Op-amp schematic

Image of this op-amp schematic used courtesy of MPS
 

Do two and two always make four? In a philosopher’s library, or a propaganda office, or an interrogation chamber, maybe they sometimes do not. Even a modern theoretical physicist might harbor an occasional doubt. But in the engineer’s lab, two and two always make four. We intuitively know that any attempt to insist otherwise is simply asking for failure—perhaps catastrophic failure.

When you’re designing subsystems for commercial airliners or guided missiles or surgical robots, you don’t play around with the laws of math and science. Actually, have you ever thought about the term “scientific law”? We’re very familiar with the concept of laws in ordinary life: if you break them, something bad happens.

Engineering, perhaps more than most other professions, teaches its practitioners that if scientific and mathematical laws are not respected, bad things happen.

 

The Future of a Scientific Society

I’m not going to say anything specific about what I perceive as 2020’s unprecedented politicization and manipulation of math and science. What I will say is this: never have I been so overwhelmed by the feeling that true science is being betrayed by scientists and dangerously misappropriated by people from many other walks of life.

There are those who believe that our society is evolving toward technocracy, i.e., governance based primarily on scientific and technical expertise. Maybe that’s true, maybe it isn’t. I don’t claim to know.

 

EEs work in the profession of applied math and science

EEs work in the profession of applied math and science. Image used courtesy of the University of Waterloo

 

However, if we’re going in that direction, I dearly hope that the decision-makers of the future are well versed in the “old-fashioned” science that I learned about in school: science that is firmly rooted in the strictures of the scientific method, that thrives on logical debate and meticulous inquiry, that voraciously seeks out potentially disruptive data rather than ignoring or suppressing it, that challenges conventions and superstitions and tribal knowledge, that fully understands the peril of treating assumptions, approximations, predictions, and hypotheses as though they are established—or even unassailable—scientific facts.

 

A New Year’s Consideration for EEs?

I believe that electrical engineers have an important role to play in helping modern society to maintain a healthy relationship with science. We have expertise in both science and technology; we learn scientific concepts, and we apply them.

We are thoroughly familiar with the extreme scientific rigor required to design a system that is intended to operate in outer space, or to sustain human life, or to continuously process immense quantities of numerical data without ever making a mistake.

We have seen how carefully and exhaustively a component or system should be tested and characterized before it is sent into the field—just think about the pages of datasheet plots and specs produced for a simple op-amp!

 

µA741

Just a sampling of the pages of plots for one of TI’s general-purpose op-amps, the µA741. Image used courtesy of Texas Instruments
 

We know that one little firmware bug hidden amidst thousands of lines of source code can be both virtually undetectable and, eventually, utterly disastrous.

We know that science is powerful, and that bad science has consequences.

As we begin this new year, maybe we should be on the lookout for opportunities to use our expertise not only for designing circuits and writing algorithms but also to humbly and kindly help our less-technically-inclined friends to recognize when science has become a political or ideological pawn rather than a quest for truth and understanding.

 

The Year Ahead

Despite all the upheaval, 2020 has demonstrated once again that human beings are incredibly resilient. We’re facing new challenges, but we’re also finding new solutions, and that’s something to be thankful for.

Let’s hope that 2021 is a little less turbulent than 2020. And whatever happens, we’ll rely on support from friends, family, and colleagues, just like we always have.

On behalf of the editorial team here at AAC, I wish all of our readers a happy and healthy new year.



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