Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Essential Engineer by Henry Petroski

Petroski is one of the great Explainers-To-Laymen of our time; his general subject (as this title implies) is engineering. And this is a medium-length book that has one point and returns to it again and again: what most people call "science" includes a lot of what is properly "engineering," and that the general public greatly misunderstands how much engineering is needed to apply "science" and make it actually do useful things in the world.
The Essential Engineer is a book-length apologia pro engineerium; Petroski thinks the enterprise to which he's devoted his career is important and little-understood and wants to correct that, and so runs through what engineering in particular is (and STEM, that timely acronym, is more generally) in his serviceable but not scintillating prose. (But who would want bombast or flash from a non-fiction book about engineering, anyway? Wouldn't that feel like distraction?)

This is a deeply worthy book, which should be read by a lot of people who never will -- relatively smart opinion- and policy-makers around the world with heads full of mistaken ideas and bad analogies -- and is of interest to anyone who wonders if they really know how engineering works, and how it interfaces with science. Don't expect to be inspired, though -- science sometimes inspires, but engineering is all about working out the grubby details after some inspired guy has a big idea and runs out of the room.

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