Physics is wonderful, its applications are sh*t, Engineering is sh*t, its applications are wonderful

I’ve spent the week in a sunny Dublin, at a workshop on crystallisation. The workshop looked especially at using computer simulations to understand the fundamentals of crystallisation, and on applications to crystallising drugs. Most drug tablets, like aspirin, paracetamol, etc, are crystals. So at the workshop there was a mixture of physicists, chemists and chemical engineers, and some of us were from universities and some from drug companies.

It was really interesting to hear about all the challenges involved in making a drug tablet that works, in the sense of delivering the drug to you in a safe form while dissolving in your stomach and/or intestines. I did not realise that some drugs are so insoluble in the water inside your intestines that not only is it hard to get them to dissolve there, but even once they are dissolved they can reform crystals inside you – which of course is very undesirable.To avoid this scientists and engineers at pharmaceutical companies add other molecules to the tablet that inhibit this formation of crystals of the drug inside your gut. A pretty cool piece of engineering. This brings me to one the more senior physicists at the workshop’s entertaining comparison of physics and engineering, which is the title of this post. Neither I nor he takes it seriously, but I think it is kind of funny, and it does make the point that physicists can tend to sacrifice usefulness for some ideal of elegance, while engineers are more focused on usefulness. Despite (or maybe because of) this difference, when I chatted to a scientist from a drug company, we quickly agreed that the best progress on developing the next generation of drug tablets would be made with teams of engineers, physicists and chemists.

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