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Posted November 26, 2006
A Literary Disaster
Henry petroski¿s Remaking the World is one of the most poorly-written books I have come across in years. The author purports to regale the reader with ¿adventures in engineering,¿ yet the few actual case histories of engineering projects are presented almost as afterthoughts. The first third of the book is devoted to the Engineer¿s thought process, supposedly a mysterious and arcane pursuit far beyond the comprehension of mere mortals. We are led to believe that it is almost superhuman to actually lose sleep over an engineering problem, and that only another engineer can even begin to comprehend the complexities of the engineer¿s magnificent mind. In fact engineering is largely the practical application of common sense, tempered by extensive training and strong understanding of underlying theory. We are then led on a tour of some of the engineering marvels of the past century, including Ferris¿ great Wheel, the Panama Canal, and the Petronas towers. However, each short vignette falls short of the heroic level the book repeatedly attempts and fails to reach. The discussion of the Ferris Wheel concludes that the only unique factor raising the Wheel to greatness is its sheer size, but the author neglects to even mention its diameter. The chapter on the Hoover Dam discusses at length the cross-sectional structure of the dam, invisible from photographs, but fails to provide a single sketch. The chapter on Soil Mechanics is interpolated between a discussion of the painting ¿Men of Progress¿ and a section entitled ¿Is Technology Wired.¿ There is no purpose to its placement, or even to its existence. It remains, like much of the book, a story in search of a purpose. The final chapter of the book is a discussion of the construction of the Petronas Towers. While the chapter itself is on topic and addresses the sociopolitical context of the Towers¿ construction, it concludes the book abruptly, leaving the reader expecting some sort of final chapter tying the various stories together. In sum, this book is poorly organized, poorly written and totally lacking in overall theme. One feels a certain pity for the students of Civil Engineering unfortunate enough to have been subjected to Professor Petroski¿s lecture courses.
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Posted October 27, 2008
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