[Paleopsych] Book World: Grand Designs

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Grand Designs

    Reviewed by James Trefil
    Sunday, October 17, 2004; Page BW08

    New Adventures in Engineering
    By Henry Petroski. Knopf. 288 pp. $25

    Norman Mailer, a onetime engineering student himself, once remarked
    that "Physics was love, engineering was marriage." He was right. A
    physicist looking at a bridge sees gravity pulling relentlessly down
    while the atoms in the iron and concrete squeeze against each other to
    exert a countervailing force and keep the bridge standing. An engineer
    looking at the same bridge will see some of this, of course, but will
    see a lot of other things as well. He or she will see the economic
    factors that dictated the use of materials, the complex strategies
    that had to be worked out to keep the structure standing during
    construction, the endless permits and forms that had to be filled out
    before the first shovelful of dirt was turned over, the court cases
    brought by environmental groups, and all the other elements that had
    to be dealt with before the grand principles of the physicist could be
    realized in this particular structure.

    Henry Petroski, a professor of civil engineering and history at Duke
    University, has made it his calling to help the rest of us see the
    world through the eyes of the engineer. He has been called,
    deservedly, the "poet laureate of engineering." Pushing the Limits is
    a collection of essays, first published in somewhat different form in
    the American Scientist, that amounts to a kind of intellectual
    travelogue in which he shares with us an engineer's-eye view of
    everything from obscure bridges to crazy (and as yet unbuilt)
    structures that have been proposed by engineers in the past.

    Petroski is an engaging writer, clearly in love with his subject. I
    enjoyed this book immensely, so let me get a minor criticism off my
    chest. It wasn't until page 257 (in the author's acknowledgments) that
    I learned that I was reading a book of collected essays. An earlier
    statement would have saved me a lot of trouble trying to figure out
    what the connection between chapters was. Once I figured it out, I
    could take each chapter as a self-contained unit (as was originally
    intended) and enjoy the book for what it is.

    The first half of the book is taken up with a discussion of bridges.
    These are some of the most dramatic built structures in the world, not
    least because they often occur in dramatic settings -- harbors, gorges
    and the like. Petroski begins with a historical survey stressing
    bridge design as a creative activity -- "The fresh piece of paper on
    the drawing board is as blank as the newly stretched piece of canvas"
    -- and goes on to point out fascinating details for each bridge he
    considers. I was amazed to learn, for example, that the Verrazano
    Narrows Bridge in New York is so long that the curvature of the Earth
    makes the tops of its towers a full inch farther apart than their
    bases, and that when the Pont de Normandie was completed across the
    mouth of the Seine in France, 80 fully loaded trucks were parked on it
    nose-to-tail to test it before normal traffic was allowed to cross.

    Two local bridges made Petroski's list -- the Arlington Memorial
    Bridge (he seems to have a special weakness for drawbridges) and, of
    course, the new Wilson Bridge which is now somewhat farther along
    (thank God!) than when these chapters were written.

    This is not a triumphalist book. The engineering character has a
    certain gloomy side, a side that delights in contemplating all the
    things that can (and do) go wrong with structures. So we have the
    standard discussion of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in Washington, whose
    collapse in a windstorm in 1940 was captured on film and is routinely
    shown to engineering students, as well as discussions of bridges that
    have failed during earthquakes. This is interesting stuff, especially
    when Petroski contrasts the way we deal with airplane failures (keep
    all the pieces until we've wrung the last drop of information from the
    debris) to the way we deal with collapsed structures (bulldoze the
    site and rebuild ASAP).

    The last half of the book deals with an astonishing variety of other
    structures, from the Three Gorges Dam going up in China to the deadly
    collapse of the bonfire at Texas A&M University in 1999. The most
    interesting of these chapters was a stroll through some truly wild
    ideas that have been proposed by engineers in the past. My favorite: a
    1928 scheme to build a dam across the Strait of Gibraltar and shrink
    the Mediterranean, thereby adding real estate to Europe and North
    Africa. (I'd like to see the Environmental Impact Statement for that

    In the end, what we have here is a fascinating potpourri of history,
    engineering and imagination, all presented in the fluid, humane
    writing style that we have come to expect from this author. o

    James Trefil is Clarence J. Robinson Professor of Physics at George
    Mason University. His latest book is "Human Nature: A Blueprint for
    Managing the Planet By and For Humans."

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