by Rosalind Williams ‧ RELEASE DATE: Sept. 1, 2002
An epic account of the struggle to humanize engineering education.
The author chronicles her five years as dean of students and undergraduate education at MIT (1995–2000) to show how one of the world’s great seats of technical knowledge struggled with the impact of its own principal product: innovation.
Williams is the granddaughter of Warren Kendall Lewis, who came to MIT in 1901 hoping to take some knowledge of agronomy back to his Delaware family farm. Instead, he stayed to teach and shape a renowned chemical engineering curriculum that ultimately helped hasten the demise of thousands of small farms. His granddaughter uses this family tale as a parable for technological change reverberating in ways unforeseen even by those who labor to foster it. She portrays MIT in the ’90s as an institution with an unparalleled engineering tradition at its core that had an increasing number of students more interested in acquiring the abstract skills of manipulating computer code and electronic information than in building bridges, airplanes, and oil refineries. Suddenly, it was unclear exactly what an engineer was or was supposed to do. Falling back on the broadest possible definition of an engineer as a person who “solves problems” was only a little help as the faculty and administration tried to bridge apparent gaps in both curricula and the university community. To make matters worse, the school’s costs and revenues were taking separate paths; insolvency was a projectible fact. Williams (now director of MIT’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society) goes on to detail the “retooling” of MIT in terms of new organizational structures and goals that include a formal corporate “reengineering” project that, to her surprise, got much stiff resistance inside the university. Millions were spent on accounting software to just to stay even; efficiency measures threatened to depersonalize processes at every turn, and those biased in favor of innovation merely for its own sake had to be identified and brought on the carpet.An epic account of the struggle to humanize engineering education.
Pub Date: Sept. 1, 2002
Page Count: 265
Publisher: MIT Press
Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2002
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A quirky wonder of a book.
A Peabody Award–winning NPR science reporter chronicles the life of a turn-of-the-century scientist and how her quest led to significant revelations about the meaning of order, chaos, and her own existence.
Miller began doing research on David Starr Jordan (1851-1931) to understand how he had managed to carry on after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed his work. A taxonomist who is credited with discovering “a full fifth of fish known to man in his day,” Jordan had amassed an unparalleled collection of ichthyological specimens. Gathering up all the fish he could save, Jordan sewed the nameplates that had been on the destroyed jars directly onto the fish. His perseverance intrigued the author, who also discusses the struggles she underwent after her affair with a woman ended a heterosexual relationship. Born into an upstate New York farm family, Jordan attended Cornell and then became an itinerant scholar and field researcher until he landed at Indiana University, where his first ichthyological collection was destroyed by lightning. In between this catastrophe and others involving family members’ deaths, he reconstructed his collection. Later, he was appointed as the founding president of Stanford, where he evolved into a Machiavellian figure who trampled on colleagues and sang the praises of eugenics. Miller concludes that Jordan displayed the characteristics of someone who relied on “positive illusions” to rebound from disaster and that his stand on eugenics came from a belief in “a divine hierarchy from bacteria to humans that point[ed]…toward better.” Considering recent research that negates biological hierarchies, the author then suggests that Jordan’s beloved taxonomic category—fish—does not exist. Part biography, part science report, and part meditation on how the chaos that caused Miller’s existential misery could also bring self-acceptance and a loving wife, this unique book is an ingenious celebration of diversity and the mysterious order that underlies all existence.A quirky wonder of a book.
Pub Date: April 14, 2020
Page Count: 224
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Review Posted Online: Jan. 1, 2020
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020
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by Tom Wolfe ‧ RELEASE DATE: Sept. 24, 1979
Yes: it's high time for a de-romanticized, de-mythified, close-up retelling of the U.S. Space Program's launching—the inside story of those first seven astronauts.
But no: jazzy, jivey, exclamation-pointed, italicized Tom Wolfe "Mr. Overkill" hasn't really got the fight stuff for the job. Admittedly, he covers all the ground. He begins with the competitive, macho world of test pilots from which the astronauts came (thus being grossly overqualified to just sit in a controlled capsule); he follows the choosing of the Seven, the preparations for space flight, the flights themselves, the feelings of the wives; and he presents the breathless press coverage, the sudden celebrity, the glorification. He even throws in some of the technology. But instead of replacing the heroic standard version with the ring of truth, Wolfe merely offers an alternative myth: a surreal, satiric, often cartoony Wolfe-arama that, especially since there isn't a bit of documentation along the way, has one constantly wondering if anything really happened the way Wolfe tells it. His astronauts (referred to as "the brethren" or "The True Brothers") are obsessed with having the "right stuff" that certain blend of guts and smarts that spells pilot success. The Press is a ravenous fool, always referred to as "the eternal Victorian Gent": when Walter Cronkite's voice breaks while reporting a possible astronaut death, "There was the Press the Genteel Gent, coming up with the appropriate emotion. . . live. . . with no prompting whatsoever!" And, most off-puttingly, Wolfe presumes to enter the minds of one and all: he's with near-drowing Gus Grissom ("Cox. . . That face up there!—it's Cox. . . Cox knew how to get people out of here! . . . Cox! . . ."); he's with Betty Grissom angry about not staying at Holiday Inn ("Now. . . they truly owed her"); and, in a crude hatchet-job, he's with John Glenn furious at Al Shepard's being chosen for the first flight, pontificating to the others about their licentious behavior, or holding onto his self-image during his flight ("Oh, yes! I've been here before! And I am immune! I don't get into corners I can't get out of! . . . The Presbyterian Pilot was not about to foul up. His pipeline to dear Lord could not be clearer"). Certainly there's much here that Wolfe is quite right about, much that people will be interested in hearing: the P-R whitewash of Grissom's foul-up, the Life magazine excesses, the inter-astronaut tensions. And, for those who want to give Wolfe the benefit of the doubt throughout, there are emotional reconstructions that are juicily shrill.
But most readers outside the slick urban Wolfe orbit will find credibility fatally undermined by the self-indulgent digressions, the stylistic excesses, and the broadly satiric, anti-All-American stance; and, though The Right Stuff has enough energy, sass, and dirt to attract an audience, it mostly suggests that until Wolfe can put his subject first and his preening writing-persona second, he probably won't be a convincing chronicler of anything much weightier than radical chic.
Pub Date: Sept. 24, 1979
Page Count: 370
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review Posted Online: Oct. 13, 2011
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 1979
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