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Petroski on Engineering: Engineering & Civilization

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ironhorse
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Iron
The High and Mighty ...
ironhorse   6/1/2012 11:12:27 AM
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A pet peeve is the veneration of the ancient pyramids:  A pyramid is the simplest of structures; mere variations of piles of dirt and rocks! The  inverse of a hole-in-the-ground!  A pyramid is close to non-optimal material utilization – the least amount of building that you can get for given amounts of resources.  Vaulting is primitive, mostly corbeling with very few examples of anything as "advanced" as triangular arches.  Layout requires nothing more than high school geometry (I reject the notion that anyone who got an A in Geometry was taught by aliens).

The author highlights how primitive the pyramids are by his immediate contrast of the Romans.

I have viewed Engineering as the profession of how to do the most with the least -- considering volume of stonework enclosure, on one end you have the pyramid piles and on another you have gothic cathedrals (still just Geometry).   

Still "Quantity has a quality all its own."  When SAC was having a B52-capable runway built in Salina, KS, the Officers were frustrated with the detail of analysis the Civil Engineers were presenting to figure out how thick the runway had to be to land B52s.  Finally, a General stood up and demanded, "Would 2 feet of concrete be enough?"  To which the Engineer replied, "Yes, but 2 feet!?!"  So, today, aviation in Salina has a very stable runway.

Yes, there is a tradeoff between durability and utilization, Engineering failure is often a case of carrying utilization too far (using tie rods so thin that welding becomes a risk,  replacing butter with hydrogenated soybean oil), but the pyramids carry durability to the point of practical uselessness.  It would be technically simple to recreate the Egyptian Monuments today, but why?

Please Note: I'm not bagging on the article, but on the idea that pyramids represent much  advancement other than social organization.

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: Materials and civilization
Ann R. Thryft   5/16/2012 1:14:19 PM
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Although Diamond's background is not in anthropology, archaeology, culture studies, or even history, he did an amazingly good job of taking the macro approach and synthesizing much work that's already been done in those areas. The result is a very thoughtful and thought-provoking analysis. Several scholars in some of the above disciplines were apparently annoyed that he did this analysis (or publicized it) before they thought of it.

Dave Palmer
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Re: Materials and civilization
Dave Palmer   5/15/2012 8:16:18 PM
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Ann, thanks for that reference.  I've heard about Diamond's book, but I haven't read it.  Maybe I'll check it out.

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: Materials and civilization
Ann R. Thryft   5/14/2012 2:41:21 PM
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Dave, "Guns, Germs and Steel" by Jared Diamond is a great read and also an excellent analysis of the big-picture reasons behind why Spaniards conquered the in many ways more advanced New World cultures, the Incas and Aztecs, instead of the other way around. The lack of iron and steel is certainly a major, but not the only, factor.

Dave Palmer
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Re: Materials and civilization
Dave Palmer   5/11/2012 5:40:39 PM
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@Ann: You're definitely right about the "three age" classification system not being particularly applicable to Africa, Australia, or the Americas.  I was alluding to that with my reference to Mesoamerica.  On the other hand, history might have turned out very differently if the Aztecs had developed ferrous metallurgy.  In terms of civil engineering, Tenochtitlan was much larger and better laid-out than any city in Spain, and Nezahualcoyotl, who is credited with designing the city's levees, was probably at least the equal of any Renaissance European thinker.  But it's hard to beat gunpowder and steel.

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: Materials and civilization
Ann R. Thryft   5/11/2012 4:07:56 PM
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Dave, I agree with you about the importance of materials and materials engineering, as well as structures and civil/architectural engineering, helping to define different eras of human cultural advance. Since those advances happened at different times in different parts of the world, the Old Stone, New Stone, Bronze and Iron Age labels turned out to be not as useful as when they were invented to describe what early archeologists were discovering about ancient European history. I think the combination of materials and what's made with them--tools, machines, buildings, art--are some key indicators of the nature of a particular culture, as much as the particular ideology.

Dave Palmer
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Materials and civilization
Dave Palmer   5/11/2012 12:35:01 PM
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Being a civil engineer, Professor Petroski naturally focuses on monuments of civil engineering.  Certainly the examples which he gives, such as the Pyramids, are iconic of the civilizations which produced them.

But as a materials engineer, I'd like to think that the role of materials engineering has been even more fundamental to civilization.  After all, entire historical epochs are named after the materials which were used (the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, the Iron Age, etc.).  The Mesoamerican civilizations prove that highly advanced societies can be built using primarily stone tools -- but they were unable to defend themselves against less-civilized European invaders, because the Europeans had steel weapons.  And, of course, the Bible records that the Bronze Age Israelites were unable to overcome Caananite tribes who had iron chariots.

Of course, mechanical engineers might argue that tool use is even more fundamental.  It used to be said that tool use is what separated humanity from other animals, although now there is some evidence to the contrary. (And, by the way, all tools need to be made out of something).

All in all, it seems clear that it is difficult, if not impossible, to separate the superstructure of human civilization from its technological and material base.

Rob Spiegel
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Re: Much of what is built today will barely last a lifetime ...
Rob Spiegel   5/9/2012 12:57:48 PM
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That's good news Bdcst. I didn't realize some of the Android handsets were doing that. It would be nice to see Apple adopt that model. With each new release, they send millions of phones to the trash can.

Rob Spiegel
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Re: Lessons of failure
Rob Spiegel   5/9/2012 12:53:05 PM
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Good point, Chuck. Risk is not an intrinsic virtue any more than all movement is forward. I think the point of the IBM study is that the company had created a risk adverse culture and that was a problem that needed to be solved. I'm sure IBM has lived through 17 cultures since that study. My guess is that rick adversity is not the company's major concern any longer. They may be more worried about whether all major golf courses are willing to welcome their CEO.


Charles Murray
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Re: Much of what is built today will barely last a lifetime ...
Charles Murray   5/7/2012 6:53:31 PM
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I'll add a point to your point, Droid. The cars of the "good old days" were doing well to get to 100,000 miles. Today, many vehicles reach 200,000 to 250,000 miles. Today's cars are far, far more reliable.

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