Book review of "The Essential Engineer," by Henry Petroski

By Thomas Hayden
Sunday, February 28, 2010


Why Science Alone Will Not Solve Our Global Problems

By Henry Petroski


274 pp. $26.95

Engineers, as a professional necessity, tend to be practical people. Many, in my experience, also tend to be pessimists, ready to tell you in great detail all the technical and regulatory reasons why this or that project can't be done or, more likely, why it can't be done for anything less than 10 times the budget you had imagined. Then there are the others, who blend pragmatism, know-how and creativity into a particularly potent form of optimism -- the kind of optimism that, as Henry Petroski points out in "The Essential Engineer," puts his colleagues "in a position to change the world -- not just study it."

If spaceflight, the Internet and skyscrapers (to choose at random) are any evidence, then Petroski, a professor of civil engineering at Duke University, is resoundingly right. But his point here is not so much to celebrate the past accomplishments and general worthiness of engineering and design: That's a task he's handled definitively in more than a dozen previous books. Instead, Petroski presents a book-length argument for the place of engineering in humanity's future, especially when it comes to ensuring that future in the face of climate change, natural disasters, dwindling oil supplies and other global problems.

Living in San Francisco and working in Silicon Valley as I do, it's easy to forget that the cultural (and economic) supremacy of the engineer is hardly a universal condition. Petroski seems to bridle under a perceived societal bias towards science and scientists, at the expense of engineers and engineering.

Scientists get the credit for everything from the moon landing to the construction of the Large Hadron Collider, he complains, when in reality those and myriad other projects large and small couldn't have been achieved without the creative, intelligent and rigorous input of engineers. At dinner parties, he suggests, scientists are asked to explain the workings of the world, while engineers are asked to fix broken appliances.

All this may be true, but it's somewhat beside the point -- especially at a time when scientists, too, are scrambling to maintain the trust and attention of the public at large. (A more fitting subtitle might refer to politicians and talk show hosts.) Unfortunately, too much of this book strays from the main argument, which is that engineers and engineering must be at the heart of any response to global crises.

Petroski is a reflexively discursive writer, but the tangential examinations of small things that worked so well in other books of his, such as "The Pencil" and "The Evolution of Useful Things," do not help what is essentially a call to engineering action. Climate change, ocean acidification and the energy crunch loom -- and Petroski gives us a discourse on the design and meaning of the ampersand. Admittedly, this is interesting. But such meandering threatens to overwhelm the main message, in this case a call for more development to balance the research in R&D funding.

At its heart, and beyond the grudging tone and sometimes confounding structure, "The Essential Engineer" does strike a point that lies deep and solid as bedrock. The times we live in now call not so much for scientists to measure daintily the likelihood of the next pending disaster as for men and women of action -- informed by science, certainly, but also by common sense, economic reality and the social good -- to roll up their sleeves and start figuring out how to avoid that disaster. To an engineer like Petroski, that means that it is time to build. And to a very large degree, he's right. From clean energy and sound roads to safe food and effective medicines, the domain of the engineer is vast, and the need for productive optimism has perhaps never been greater.

Petroski reminds us, quite rightly, that while scientists may ring the warning when it comes to potential disasters, "warnings are not solutions -- nor 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." The warning bells are ringing clear and loud. One hopes that Petroski's own alarm, calling engineers to creative arms, is heard as clearly as a klaxon.

Thomas Hayden teaches journalism and sustainability science at Stanford University.

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