To Forgive Design by Henry Petroski (Belknap Harvard, 2012)
In this sequel to “To Engineer is Human,” civil engineering professor and popular writer Henry Petroski explores the human reasons for engineering failures. As he did in many of his previous books, Petroski focuses on what we can learn from catastrophes (bridge collapses, space shuttle explosions, etc) to avoid them in the future. But in this book, it’s not just about design and construction issues, although he does discuss metal fatigue at length. He couragously tackles construction shortcuts and corruption, management incompetence and hubris, and ethical issues of all kinds. There is an interesting detour highlighting the Canadian practice of the Iron Ring ritual for newly graduated engineers, and how this may make them more aware of ethical issues. Petroski discusses the importance of being aware of the history of your field as well as keeping up with the latest research (both can be accomplished with a literature search at the library!) which are practices noticeably lacking in a typical civil engineering office. Petroski even asks if the trend toward putting engineering books and journals online could reduce awareness of past failures, due to the lack of physical proximity of old and new materials on a topic.