A Champion of Engineering Makes an Eloquent Case

14 05 2010

Engineer/Author Henry Petroski, in more than a dozen books, has taken readers on engrossing adventures into subjects ranging from the pencil to collapsing bridges. In his latest book, The Essential Engineer: Why Science The Essential EngineerAlone Will Not Solve Our Global Problems, Petroski eloquently challenges a fundamental and profound bias in our society—the relegation of engineers and engineering to second-class status among professions.

Even though every manmade object—including the computer on which you read this review—was invented by engineers, they remain all-but-invisible in the media and in the public conscious. For example, an analysis by researchers Deborah Illman and Fiona Clark of two decades of research coverage in The New York Times found that mentions of science and scientists consistently outnumbered by two to one mentions of engineers and engineering.

In The Essential Engineer, Petroski traces the roots of the perceived primacy of science over engineering, declaring that

…our Western Platonic bias has it that ideas are superior and prerequisite to things. Hence, scientists who deal in ideas, even ideas about things, tend to be viewed as superior to engineers who deal directly in things. This point of view has no doubt contributed to the mistaken conclusion that science must precede engineering in the creative process.

In America, the origins of the science-before-engineering bias arose in the 1940s, when science administrator Vannevar Bush promulgated a simplistic linear model of science and engineering “that put research before development in name, status, fact, and deed.”

Petroski demonstrates the fallacy of this model by pointing out that technologies including the steam engine, powered flight and rockets “provide incontrovertible evidence for technology leading science. Basic research, in short, has long been suggested and motivated by and intertwined with technological development–and often has been led by it.”

In short, he writes, R&D could just as well be D&R, and “both R&D and D&R are really linked segments of a long and continuing line of interdependent activities and results. Perhaps we should speak of R&D&R, or even longer strings of D’s and R’s, as if they were part of an industrial genome.”

“Science is a tool of engineering,” writes Petroski, “and as no one claims that the chisel creates the sculpture, so no one should claim that science makes the rocket. Relying on nothing but scientific knowledge to produce an engineering solution is to invite frustration at best and failure at worst.”

What’s more, he writes,”…engineering and technology often precede science, because so many instruments and devices are needed to carry out the experiments essential to making scientific observations and testing scientific hypotheses.”

The media in general, and not just The New York Times, have done their part to minimize the importance of engineers, writes Petroski who suggests that “…as a way of dismissing their individuality…that engineers are often subsumed by careless journalists and layperson into the general rubric of scientist.”

Petroski also addresses the interchangeable use of “engineers” and “scientists” in newspaper headlines, asking “…could it be promulgated—if unwittingly—by science writers and reporters in the media whose members have overwhelmingly studied science rather than engineering in college?”

One problem, points out Petroski, is that too many of engineering’s accomplishments are “underground, behind architectural facades and associated with other professions.” Another problem is that when engineers are placed front and center in media coverage, it too often tends to be in the context of disaster.

The Essential Engineer is far from a negative screed, though. Petroski deftly describes the optimistic, challenging, rewarding nature of engineering, declaring that “The design of engineering structures is a creative process in the same way that paintings and novels are the product of creative minds. ” He writes that

Scientists also warn us of the entropic disasters associated with climate change, asteroid strikes, and the like, but warnings are not solutionsnor are they necessarily a death knell. It will be the optimistic engineers who hear the warnings not as doomsday scenarios but as calls to tackle significant problems.

And as for the complexity of engineering’s challenges, Petroski emphasizes that the profession entails more than a rote designing of widgets:

The engineering of things is “pervaded by choice,” something that cannot be easily said about science or even engineering science, to which the natural and made world are givens. Whatever scientists may wish, they cannot credibly propose a theory of motion that does not comport with the facts of the universe.

In a declaration that might surprise many unfamiliar with engineering, Petroski cites its connection with humanities, declaring that “… it behooves scientists and engineers to be connected with the cultures of the humanities and social sciences. Solutions to global problems must take into account matters of humanity and society…. The goal, after all, is not science and engineering for their own sake, but for the sake of the planet and its inhabitants.”

To demonstrate the richness of engineering, Petroski takes the reader through a tour of technologies as seen through the eyes of an engineer, including speed bumps and humps, dams, climate change, “geoengineering” of the earth to combat climate change, renewable energy, nanotechnology, robotics, structural earthquake engineering, hurricane protection, airline accidents, the electric power grid, evolution of the automobile, and “financial engineering.”

And, he firmly establishes engineering’s place in solving the daunting problems such as climate change and energy shortage, facing humanity, writing “In the final analysis, it will be engineering that possesses the same qualities involved in accomplishing the great achievements of the last century that will be the key ingredient in a solution.”

The Essential Engineer—an accessible, enjoyable tour of engineering—is essential reading, not only for engineers and students, but for all of us who benefit from the vast wealth of technology that makes modern life possible.

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