The Essential Engineer: Why Science Alone Will Not Solve Our Global Problems

Petroski, Henry

From the acclaimed author of The Pencil and To Engineer Is Human, The Essential Engineer is an eye-opening exploration of the ways in which science and engineering must work together to address our world's most pressing issues, from dealing with climate change and the prevention of natural disasters to the development of efficient automobiles and the search for renewable energy sources. While the scientist may identify problems, it falls to the engineer to solve them. It is the inherent practicality of engineering, which takes into account structural, economic, environmental, and other factors that science often does not consider, that makes engineering vital to answering our most urgent concerns. Henry Petroski takes us inside the research, development, and debates surrounding the most critical challenges of our time, exploring the feasibility of biofuels, the progress of battery-operated cars, and the question of nuclear power. He gives us an in-depth investigation of the various options for renewable energy--among them solar, wind, tidal, and ethanol--explaining the benefits and risks of each. Will windmills soon populate our landscape the way they did in previous centuries? Will synthetic trees, said to be more efficient at absorbing harmful carbon dioxide than real trees, soon dot our prairies? Will we construct a "sunshade" in outer space to protect ourselves from dangerous rays? In many cases, the technology already exists. What's needed is not so much invention as engineering. Just as the great achievements of centuries past--the steamship, the airplane, the moon landing--once seemed beyond reach, the solutions to the twenty-first century's problems await only a similar coordination of science and engineering. Eloquently reasoned and written, The Essential Engineer identifies and illuminates these problems--and, above all, sets out a course for putting ideas into action. Editorial Reviews Publishers Weekly For a quarter-century now, Duke University's Petroski has replaced Samuel Florman as the foremost American civil engineer explaining to lay audiences the nature of engineering and its crucial role in improving the world. Petroski has long been outraged by the persistent elevation of scientists over engineers in terms of intelligence and creativity. Yet none of Petroski's 14 books on technology has argued so aggressively as his newest that engineers do not merely apply what scientists discover. Instead, engineers seek the most appropriate solution out of several to any engineering problem--not the supposedly single solution requiring diligence rather than depth. Analyzing both historical and contemporary examples, from climate change to public health, Petroski shows how science often overlooks structural, economic, environmental and aesthetic dimensions that routinely challenge engineers. Moreover, he says, sometimes science trails technology, as when engineers had to design the first moon landing vehicles before scientists learned its surface composition. Far from being hostile toward science, Petroski pleads for continued cooperation between science and engineering. When, as Petroski laments, even President Obama has sometimes omitted engineering in touting science, this book could hardly be more timely. Illus. (Jan.) Library Journal Engineering is one of the least understood professions. Most people envision engineers as math-loving geeks with an affinity for pocket protectors. But what do they do? What is their role in society? Petroski (civil engineering, Duke Univ.) has written several successful books (To Engineer Is Human) that attempt to demystify the engineering profession to the general public. Here, he specifically compares scientists and engineers, drawing clear examples from both current and historical projects. He notes that while both groups often work together, their outlooks are fundamentally different. While scientists have identified problems like global warming and made scientific breakthroughs, it will take engineers to apply those discoveries to solving the problems. VERDICT Entertaining and informative, Petroski's book will be most helpful for prospective engineers and readers wanting to learn more about engineers in general.--William Baer, Georgia Inst. of Technology Lib., Atlanta Kirkus Reviews An accessible treatise on how engineers and scientists can work together to combat major world problems. In his latest book, engineer Petroski (Civil Engineering, History/Duke Univ.; The Toothpick: Technology and Culture, 2007, etc.) seeks to define what an engineer is, what they do, how they differ from scientists and why scientists and engineers must collaborate to address the most pressing issues of our age. In the early chapters, the author seems profoundly irritated by the fact that most people are ignorant about what engineers do. He takes particular exception to the fact that most laymen believe that scientists and engineers are one and the same. The difference, broadly, is that scientists work in the realm of the theoretical, while engineers are practical. For example, while scientists discovered the physical laws surrounding space flight, engineers actually designed and built the rockets. Petroski gives several examples of how engineers built technologies-wireless communication, the airplane, long-range steamships-before the scientific concepts surrounding them were even fully understood. These historical episodes are among the most compelling in the book, especially when the author examines the evolution of "research and development," the collaboration of scientists and engineers toward common goals. Such teamwork is crucial, Petroski argues. The two professions' differing perspectives could help find new alternative-energy sources, for example, and discover new ways to fight climate change. Some ideas, rooted in engineering's practicality, are ingenious in their simplicity. For example, if 360,000 square miles of urban rooftops were painted white, it could reflect enoughsunlight back into space to potentially delay climate change by more than a decade. There are a few clunky moments in the book, as when the author writes at length about the evolution of the ampersand symbol, but Petroski presents well-reasoned arguments throughout and ably breaks down complicated issues for general readers. A sharp, succinct look at the importance of engineering and collaboration, by an expert in the field. First printing of 40,000. Author tour to New York, Raleigh/Durham, San Francisco, Seattle, Toronto, Washington, D.C.

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