Renown Born From Broken Things

Tim Foecke, a materials scientist, investigates why things break.
Tim Foecke, a materials scientist, investigates why things break. (Photos By Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)
Wednesday, November 8, 2006

Your tax dollars are hard at work in all sorts of ways, both mundane and unexpected. In this occasional Page Three feature, how one local public servant made a name for himself doing a job that usually is a one-way ticket to obscurity.

How does a metallurgist become famous?

Montgomery County's Tim Foecke was on TV again last month -- this time on the National Geographic channel.

He's been on the Discovery Channel a bunch of times.

He's been in the newspapers and on the Web, and he's given dozens -- hundreds -- of speeches around the world.

Yet, he's a quiet guy, the son of a schoolteacher. He wears suspenders, has three pens in his shirt pocket and earns $110,000 working for the federal government in Gaithersburg.

He uses terms like deflection and loading and isotropic, which refers to a substance that is spread uniformly through a metal.

But as a metallurgist, Foecke, of Damascus, is also a student of human failure.

Over the years, humans have constructed ever more gigantic things. Buildings. Ships. Machines.

Often these things break. Foecke, 42, who works for the National Institute of Standards and Technology as a materials scientist, figures out why. It's a subject called "failure analysis."

"The only time metallurgy ever makes headlines is when something breaks," Foecke says.

He has studied, among other things, the structure of the U.S. Capitol dome and the collapse of the World Trade Center buildings in New York. But he is best known as the Titanic rivets man.

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