Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Essential Engineer by Henry Petroski

Petroski, Henry. The Essential Engineer: Why Science Alone Will Not Solve Our Global Problems. New York: Vintage, 2010.

Policy makers seem to love science. I can see why. Science provides a sense of specificity, certainty and consensus. It contrasts with the vagueness, variability and competition that policy makers usually have to deal with. That is more like the world engineering.

This interrelation of policy-making, science and engineering, especially the latter two, is the subject of Henry Petroski’s book, The Essential Engineer. In particular, Petroski emphasizes the important, and often overlooked, role of engineering is solving pressing problems.



I doesn’t help that people conflate science and engineering, especially by thinking of engineering as branch or application of science. Petroski is clear about the differences. Science is about increasing knowledge. Engineering is about invention. Sometimes scientists do engineering, especially when they create a devise or process to help them in their work of discovery. Sometimes engineers do science, especially when their engage in research and experimentation to gain a better understanding or problems that are not well understood.

The movement of knowledge from science to engineering practice is well understood. Petroski describes how this became ingrained in American research and development policy. Engineering often precedes science and engineers often must invent solutions in areas that are not well understood by science. Galileo’s improvements to the telescope made possible his advancements in astronomy. The science of thermodynamics grew almost entirely out of the desire to understand steam engines, which engineers had been building and improving in the absence of scientific understanding.

This misunderstanding exacerbated by our culture and education. Policy elites and scientist generally have no education in engineering. As an undergraduate studying engineering, I took science classes with students majoring in the sciences. I took classes in political science, economics and other social science and business-oriented classes with students majoring in those fields. I would have been greatly surprised to find in one of my engineering classes a student who wasn’t majoring in engineering.*

Petroski does not try to bring down science. He’s a civil engineering professor at a sizeable university, so he has probably spent quite a bit of time doing science. He does distinguish how science is helpful, mainly as a warning. Science can help us identify and define problems and assess the risks involve. When we begin to devise solutions to those problems, especially when there is no definitive solution and judgment is needed to way the pros and cons of multiple possible answers, we are moving into engineering.

The Essential Engineer is not a technical book. It for anyone who may have an interest in the role of technology in addressing our problems, especially larger societal problems. Petroski draws illustrations from current events and history (he is a professor of history as well as engineering). The book is enlivened with a storytelling feel.

* There were exceptions. I took a course in food processing that was dual-listed in agricultural engineering and food science. It was a required course for both disciplines. Electrical engineering students almost automatically minored in math, and some clever and ambitious students double-majored in those subjects. With a little better planning, I could have swung a minor in agricultural economics, and I almost wish I had. When I got into wastewater engineering, I wished I had taken more microbiology. My pursuit of additional education lead to a graduate degree in public administration. Government agencies have been employers or clients most of my career. It is common for engineers to get a masters degree in business, especially as they become managers.

Henry Petroski also wrote Paperboy.

If you’re interested in this book, you may also be interested in
The Ancient Engineers by L. Sprague de Camp
The Big Necessity by Rose George
Newton and the Counterfeiter by Thomas Levenson

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