Engineer us

Henry Petroski, professor of civil engineering and history at Duke University, is a can-do guy. In The Essential Engineer: Why Science Alone Will Not Solve Our Global Problems, his explanations of the ways that technological fixes have changed our lives lead to a surprisingly optimistic view of humanity’s ability to think, design and build our way out of current global difficulties. He perceives scientists as describing problems, while engineers figure out a way to solve them. While we can certainly hope he’s right, he does have a certain amount of old-style (as in 1950s) rose-colored thinking. Still, the possibility of using new or modified technology—windmills, batteries, high-tech fake trees that absorb lots of carbon dioxide—to keep our planet from uninhabitability is a nice change from the doom and gloom that passes for realistic discussion of things like peak oil and global climate change. We can only hope Petroski’s right.