Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Book Review: The Essential Engineer, by Henry Petroski (2010)

What is the difference between the scientist and the engineer, and why does the media always laud "scientific achievement" when success is achieved, while reporting on "engineering failure" when objectives are not met?

Henry Petroski, Professor of Civil Engineering at Duke University, tackles these and related issues from the engineering perspective in The Essential Engineer, making the case that engineers often do not receive due credit, and that success usually requires that the scientist and the engineer work together.

Many pages in The Essential Engineer are dedicated to try and define where science ends and engineering begins, and to argue about the relative importance of each throughout the history of progress. Petroski rejects the notion that science has to uncover natural principles before engineers can be put them to use, pointing to several examples where engineering success was achieved (for example, flying) before the science was fully understood.

In several chapters, Petroski ties himself up in arcane knots that require an engineer with a blowtorch to undo. The chapter titled Research and Development is followed by the chapter titled Development and Research, as Petroski self-dissolves into an ever tightening spiral trying to dissect the difference between the two, finally sinking without a trace in a soup of R's, D's and ampersands as he tries to make the case that maybe "Research and Development" would be better called "Research and Development and Research".

The book is much better in the chapters that focus tightly on the real threats and risks facing the planet, from earthquakes to asteroid strikes, and the past and present efforts of engineers and scientists to predict and prevent catastrophe. There are other good discussions on alternative fuels, with an excellent presentation of the unintended consequences of a host of once promising technologies. Climate Change receives intermittent attention, Petroski not delving deep into the topic but predictably calling for collaboration between scientists and engineers to manage the outcomes.

Even when he occasionally runs into the swamps of geekland, Petroski's writing remains agile, his prose accessible and stylish enough to maintain capable immersion.

Much like the profession it celebrates, The Essential Engineer is elegantly functional, sometimes drab but never unnecessarily conspicuous.

Subtitled Why Science Alone Will Not Solve Our Global Problems.
230 pages plus Notes and Index.
Published in hardcover by Alfred A. Knopf.

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