Henry Petroski


On his book The Essential Engineer: Why Science Alone Will Not Solve Our Global Problems

Cover Interview of March 26, 2010

The wide angle

This book relates to the nature and to the practice of research and development.  I write as an engineer who has been involved with many aspects of the profession, including design, research and development in the nuclear industry, and teaching at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.

The central topic is how research and development has been, can be, and might be funded and practiced to improve effectiveness in producing results that are relevant to problems facing the world today.  Rather than being at odds with each other, research and development should be seen as two aspects of the same endeavor; sometimes the one takes the leading role, and sometimes the other.

Many significant engineering developments have been advanced without full scientific understanding of the phenomena involved. This situation has often forced engineers to engage in scientific exploration and experimentation in the absence of scientific interest or motivation to do so. The lessons learned from historic case studies should be encouraging to inventors and engineers engaged today in efforts to develop new devices and technologies even in the face of incomplete scientific knowledge.

There is much debate today about choices and strategies involving alternative energy sources.  In the book, I weigh the pros and cons of many of them.  Among the energy sources I discuss are bio, solar, wind, wave, tidal, geothermal, etc.  Also, I pay some attention to the various pros and cons of all-electric, hybrid, plug-in hybrid, and other variations of more fuel efficient vehicles.