May 21, 2020

Killing Off a Pandemic is Engineering, Not 'Science'
By Chet Richards

When I was just starting my career as an engineering physicist I was told a story. The story is likely apocryphal, but it illustrates the profound difference between science and engineering: One day the ancient Romans decided to bring fresh water down from the mountains to the city. Naturally they hired the best hydraulic specialists — the Greeks — the masters of the science of hydrostatics. The Greeks said that the pressure in a tall waterpipe would be very great. They were right, of course. Therefore, buttress the outside of your filled pipes, they advised, to prevent their explosion. The Romans did as suggested. However, when the water started to flow the pipes imploded instead of exploded. No one knew why this happened. The Romans simply shrugged their shoulders and buttressed the inside of these water pipes — with great success. About two thousand years later the Bernoulli brothers found the scientific explanation. So, science is nice, but engineering works.

Who are the engineers in this pandemic? The doctors on the front line, of course. These are the pragmatic guys who are willing to try anything to save the lives of their patients — even if the academic scientists say don’t. Let’s also give credit to the hands-on lab scientists who are working, often with great ingenuity, to find a vaccine. That too is engineering, only at the molecular level.

Now that the pandemic is easing up a bit I was able to chat about this with a highly regarded infectious medicine specialist. This is a man who once saved my life by working in his lab to devise an antibiotic cocktail for me. This, after all conventional treatments had failed. This good doctor has spent almost every waking hour of the last two months saving the lives of COVID patients, some of whom were in intensive care. He has found that the hydroxychloroquine cocktail works with patients in the early to mid-phase of infection, but not much in the intensive care phase. He uses other techniques in the late phase. His experience with the cocktail corresponds to that of other doctors. The hydroxy cocktail is therefore a very effective prophylactic, or curative, depending on the stage of infection. But not later on.

When I mentioned the notion that, in this pandemic, he was an engineer, not a scientist, he most emphatically agreed. Then this mild mannered man surprised me by using very strong language with respect to the “science” advisors to the politicians.
It's not long, so read it all.

Anyone who has studied science, done research, AND done applied science in the 'wild' will be nodding their heads and cursing.

All three share a subject but all three require different skill sets to be successful. The skill sets can interrelate (though they don't always have to) and can build on each other (though they don't always have to). Trial and error is a major part narrowing down real-world solutions using theoretical/research knowledge. Luck plus talent is a part of it. Stuff that should work often doesn't because you didn't think big enough or small enough or weird enough.

Neither people nor environments are stable. They aren't labs (and labs have own stability issues). Basically, a really good idea is like an old map that shows you the mountains, oceans, and rivers but has pockets of 'Here Be Dragons'. You can defeat the dragons but at the moment you might not know if you need a virgin, a bag of gold, or Divine intervention. You have to work it out.

That's 'engineering'.

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