The Essential Engineer by Henry Petroski

Henry Petroski, who has written several wonderful books about small things (toothpicks, pencils) and large things (bridges, technology, the importance of failure) has got something stuck in his craw. He is irritated by the way we romanticize scientists and disrespect the critical role of engineers: “Our Western Platonic bias has it that ideas are superior and prerequisite to things.”

Science does not, contrary to popular opinion, he writes, “precede engineering in the creative process.” There would be no science (certainly not the tools to conduct critical experiments), he even goes so far to say, without engineers.

Petroski came of age in the era of Sputnik, when American children with an aptitude for numbers and good standardized test scores were encouraged to study engineering in college. We knew, he writes of his early colleagues, that “as engineers, we were going to be in a position to change the world — not just study it.” He would like to clarify the different, intersecting roles that scientists and engineers can play in the effort to find solutions for the world’s most pressing problems.

New technologies, such as steamships, compact fluorescent light bulbs and even speed bumps to slow traffic all come with problems that become evident with use. It falls most often to the engineer to solve these problems. (With speed bumps, the shape of the mound is critical, not just for the shocks but also for the rate at which a car will accelerate after going over the bump, releasing exhaust and making noise.)

“Although engineers want always to make everything better, they cannot make anything perfect,” Petroski writes. “This basic characteristic flaw of the products of the profession’s practitioners is what drives change and makes achievement a process rather than simply a goal.”

Petroski takes us back into the research and development departments of companies such as Corning, AT&T and Kodak in the early 1900s to show how scientists (research) and engineers (development) have traditionally worked together. Research in these labs was driven by economic growth.

Today, the failure to create inexpensive solar cells, electric vehicles, fuel cells and other solutions to energy problems is due to society’s lack of adequate investment in development over research, Petroski writes. When budgets are “front-loaded with dollars for undirected basic research,” he writes, “all that may be produced is knowledge that is irrelevant and inefficacious as far as solving the problem at hand.”

Petroski cites a few juicy examples of scientists finding inane solutions: the physicist who suggested using millions of carbon filters to vacuum the atmosphere — a $5.6-trillion solution — or proposals to create artificial volcanoes to blast sulfur particles into the atmosphere and block sunlight, lessening the Earth’s warmth.

Petroski indulges in a certain snarkiness: In a chapter on prizes, he writes that Alfred Nobel designated two engineers to be the executors of his estate. The engineers engaged a lawyer, who “in turn sought counsel from scientists of his social acquaintance. The rest,” he writes with just a hint of bitterness, “is, of course, history.”

Nonetheless, he makes a convincing argument for shattering the halo we have clamped so firmly on the heads of scientists, who are expected to solve problems they are ill-equipped to take on. Science tends to get bogged down in politics — Petroski uses examples from the early debates on global warming and from the health industry.

He calls this back-and-forth the “windshield wiper effect… frequently seen in the health sector, with one study finding that a substance is good for us and another that it is bad.” The result is a loss of credibility, an increase in the gap that British scientist and novelist C.P. Snow spoke about in the famous lecture on two cultures — physical scientists and literary intellectuals — he delivered half a century ago.

Contrary to both the humanities and the sciences, engineering involves making and designing and building. “Science may be the theatre,” Petroski writes, in which these heated discussions take place, but “engineering is the action on the stage.”

He wonders: “If the two cultures of a half century ago were the sciences and the humanities, are the two cultures of today the sciences and engineering?” Only by working together more closely, Petroski argues, can they solve the world’s problems.

RATING 7 / 10