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To Forgive Design: Understanding Failureby Henry Petroski
Synopses & Reviews
When planes crash, bridges collapse, and automobile gas tanks explode, we are quick to blame poor design. But Henry Petroski says we must look beyond design for causes and corrections. Known for his masterly explanations of engineering successes and failures, Petroski here takes his analysis a step further, to consider the larger context in which accidents occur.
In To Forgive Design he surveys some of the most infamous failures of our time, from the 2007 Minneapolis bridge collapse and the toppling of a massive Shanghai apartment building in 2009 to Boston's prolonged Big Dig and the 2010 Gulf oil spill. These avoidable disasters reveal the interdependency of people and machines within systems whose complex behavior was undreamt of by their designers, until it was too late. Petroski shows that even the simplest technology is embedded in cultural and socioeconomic constraints, complications, and contradictions.
Failure to imagine the possibility of failure is the most profound mistake engineers can make. Software developers realized this early on and looked outside their young field, to structural engineering, as they sought a historical perspective to help them identify their own potential mistakes. By explaining the interconnectedness of technology and culture and the dangers that can emerge from complexity, Petroski demonstrates that we would all do well to follow their lead.
"'From ancient to modern times, the size of ships, the weight of obelisks, the height of cathedrals, the span of bridges...and the limits of everything have been defined, at least temporarily, by failure,' Petroski writes in the first chapter of this sequel to 1992's To Engineer is Human. Petroski, Professor of Civil Engineering and History at Duke University, uses relatable metaphors to discuss concepts such as metal fatigue and how buildings, bridges, and roads deteriorate, in addition to the lengths engineers have gone to in an effort to mitigate catastrophe. Though his focus here is primarily on bridges, Petroski extends his analysis to include the sinking of the Titanic, the mid-flight explosion of TWA Flight 800, the Challenger tragedy, the Y2K computer programming crisis, and the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Each has its own unique set of human, mechanical, and engineering failures, and Petroski does a terrific job of identifying and communicating not only what went wrong, but what was learned from the failure and how that knowledge has since been put into practice. Fellow engineers and armchair scientists will get the most out of the book, but even the layman will find Petroski's study to be accessible, informative, and interesting. Photos. (Mar.)" Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
When planes crash, bridges collapse, and automobile gas tanks explode, we are quick to blame poor design. But Petroski, known for his masterly explanations of engineering successes and failures, says we must look beyond design to the interdependency of people and machines within complex socioeconomic systems undreamt of by designers.
A Choice Outstanding Academic Title of 2012
About the Author
Henry Petroski's previous books include To Engineer Is Human, which was developed into a BBC television documentary; The Pencil; The Evolution of Useful Things; and Engineers of Dreams. Petroski is the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and Professor of History at Duke University.
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