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

Henry Petroski's latest book asks why engineering doesn't get the respect that science does

petroski book cover
The Essential Engineer: Why Science Alone Will Not Solve Our Global Problems By Henry Petroski; Alfred A. Knopf, 2010; 288 pp.; US $26.95;
ISBN 978-0307272454

If engineering had a poet laureate, it would be Henry Petroski, professor of engineering and history at Duke University, in Durham, N.C. A member of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering (NAE), Petroski is author of more than a dozen books about engineering aimed at the general public.

His latest, The Essential Engineer: Why Science Alone Will Not Solve Our Global Problems, adapted from his columns in American Scientist and ASEE Prism, explores why engineering lacks the glamour of science in the public’s mind. Clearly vexed, he takes the media to task for describing a successful space project as a ”scientific success” while a dud becomes an ”engineering failure.”

Part of the problem, he says, is the linear model of technological progress: Basic research spawns applied research, which in turn fuels technological development. This model is wrong historically, and it undervalues the creative juices of good engineering. For example, Corning made major advances in glass technology at a time when the physics of glass was essentially unknown.

This linear model became ascendant in U.S. science policy after 1945 when Vannevar Bush submitted his famous report, “Science—the Endless Frontier,” which enhanced the prestige (and funding) of basic research at the expense of applied work.

The pendulum has swung, Petroski says, as the U.S. Department of Defense and other mission-oriented agencies discovered that the payoff, in terms of practical advances per dollar spent, is far greater from development projects than from basic research. Basic research is a fine thing, he writes, but support for it ”is not necessarily the way to [efficiently] spend money allocated for attacking a particular problem.”

In his penultimate chapter, Petroski lists the NAE’s 14 grand challenges, such as making solar energy affordable, preventing nuclear terror, securing cyberspace, and reverse-engineering the brain. ”There will be cooperation among engineers, scientists, and medical doctors,” he writes, ”but the participants will in effect all be doing engineering.”

The Essential Engineer is elegantly written, with many entertaining side discussions, such as one that describes Einstein’s invention of a refrigerator. The book’s magazine-article origins limit its depth in favor of a broad scattering of topics. But the book will appeal to lay audiences, and just maybe, it will garner engineering more of the respect it deserves.

For more book reviews, see the full list.

About the Author

Kenneth R. Foster is a professor of bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania, an IEEE Fellow, and a former president of the IEEE Society on Social Implications of Technology.

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