Things I’ve Learned About the Universe from Scientists and Engineers

I am not a science or engineering genius, mostly because I’m not particularly sharp or diligent when it comes to math. That said, I have learned some things about how scientists and engineers look at the world, and it’s made me a better technical writer, if only because what I’ve learned helps me to know which questions I need to ask.

These observations or axioms are a mix of scientific/engineering insights and English-major words because whether my techie friends like it or not, I encode my understanding of the world in words, not diagrams or equations. This isn’t an inferior way of looking at the universe, just different.

  • For every action there is a reaction. This is slightly different from Newton’s Third Law of Motion (For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction) because I use it to address more than just physical actions of moving objects. It works in chemistry, zoology, physics, or anthropology. If an action occurs that affects an object, system, or individual life form, there will be a reaction of some sort.
  • Scientists and engineers study and measure the reactions. This is key to understanding why mathematics is so key to science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) disciplines. If you can measure a phenomenon with a number, you can study it scientifically.
  • Sometimes you can’t study an event because it’s too fast or it happened millions of years ago. However, if you know what the reactions of an activity create, you can made some educated guesses about its nature. Example: radioactive elements and deceased life forms decay, and that decay produces particular physical outcomes–particles, gases, radiation. Depending on how much of those byproducts you measure, you can determine things such as how large of a reaction occurred, when a life form was alive, or how long ago it occurred.
  • Scientists are studying the nature or behavior of some specific part of the universe. Engineers are using known aspects of the universe to accomplish a human purpose.
  • Experiments are controlled simulations of the real world, where a scientist or engineer will test a theory about how a new object/particle/chemical/device will behave in a given, specific situation. The goal is to create conditions where the object under study will be put into a specific physical situation, put under known constraints (pressure, chemical reaction, physical stress) and the reactions measured. The scientist or engineer might or might not know what to expect, but for the experiment to be useful and repeatable by others, they must identify what the measurable outcomes could or should be–whether those outcomes are particles, radiation, physical work, physical breakdown, chemical reactions, or otherwise.
  • Every physical object has a breaking point.
  • Life forms grow to adapt to a specific set of environmental conditions. If you give it too much or too little of a particular component, even a useful one, it will eventually die. Similarly, engineered products are designed for a particular set of conditions; exceed those conditions in some way, and eventually the product will break.
  • Heat–as a function of moving particles–spreads out from a heat source into the universe until it is dispersed more or less evenly. This is thermodynamics, and it took me a long time to understand this intuitively. It basically means heat is an active force, cold (the absence of heat) is not. You might feel as if cold is “seeping into your bones,” but what’s really happening is that the heat of your body is seeping out into the universe. Insulation is needed to retain heat, but too much insulation can create other problems through overheating.
  • Energy operates in predictable ways. For example, pressure within a given vessel is more or less even in all directions against and within the perimeter of that vessel because particles spread out evenly in all directions (see point above). Alternatively, electricity will travel along the paths available to it.
  • If you’ve got a weak pressure vessel or an incomplete/broken energy channel (circuit, conduit, dam, fuel tank), that energy will go somewhere. Most likely, because energy continues to operate the same in all directions, it will concentrate or escape at the weak point(s).
  • You can lie with your mouth about how much food, drink, medicine, or poisonous chemicals, but your body’s cells cannot because the chemistry of your body will react in predictable ways and produce specific reactions.
  • Systems and natural cycles are interrelated among their individual components. In practical terms this means is that if you have a failure or imbalance of some sort in one part of the system, eventually that failure or imbalance will result in differing reactions (outputs) elsewhere in the system…again, in predictable or mathematically describable ways, if known.
  • Every engineering choice is the result of and results in trade-offs. You can only spend so much on a given widget, for example. So while it might be nice to have everything made of highly durable material X, that durability will likely come with trade-offs such as increased rarity of the material, difficulty shaping the material, or increased price. You might want to include more backup systems to ensure that an engine, reactor, or life-support system operates safely, but your system will become more complex, require more parts, and thus create more potential ways for things to go wrong. Or you might want to create computer code that covers every possible contingency; however, to do that, your program will be longer, slower, and more prone to contain errors.
  • Engineering choices must rely on human estimates and judgments about how a particular invention will be used, what sorts of environments it is likely to encounter, and what likely stresses the invention is likely to face in the course of normal operations. Breakdowns often occur when an engineered product is put through environmental or duty-cycle activities it was not designed to withstand. Products are tested within reasonable limits, but there’s always the unexpected…especially if a product is used for a task it was not originally designed to perform.

Great! You’ve learned a few scientific or engineering insights, and no math was required.

But How Does This Help Me With My Writing?

What the above observations of science or technology help me with is asking questions of subject matter experts (SMEs). For example:

  • What is/are the expected outcome(s) of a given system?
  • What is likely to happen if X does not work or does not happen?
  • What are warning signs that a given product or system is not functioning correctly?
  • What are ways you can test for a failure?
  • What units are used to measure performance in a given system?
  • What is the correct range of outputs for a given product/system?
  • What does it mean if a product/system fails to meet or exceeds its designed outputs?
  • What is/are the most crucial input(s) for a given system?
  • What is/are the weak spot(s) of a given product/system?
  • What is the easiest way to fix the product if it’s in operation?

In short, even if you don’t understand “the numbers” (and trust me–I don’t), you can at least follow the physical implications of those numbers and be able to discuss with your SMEs how something works…or why it doesn’t. The numbers tell a story; your job is to translate that mathematically described story into words, the non-math-minded person can understand.

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About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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