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THE ESSENTIAL ENGINEER by Henry Petroski

THE ESSENTIAL ENGINEER

Why Science Alone Will Not Solve Our Global Problems

By Henry Petroski

Pub Date: Jan. 13th, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-307-27245-4
Publisher: Knopf

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 enough sunlight 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.