Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Books (Engineering): Pushing the Limits

I picked up Pushing the Limits: New Adventures in Engineering by Henry Petroski because I've enjoyed books like Why Buildings Fall Down and Why Buildings Stay Up by Matthys Levy and Mario Salvadori or Why Things Break by Mark Eberhart. These books had fascinating stories of successes and failures in engineering, and some interesting insights into how the smallest mistake can have huge consequences.

Unfortunately, I haven't been able to get into Pushing the Limits. Petroski's early chapters have been fast and shallow surveys of structures in the US. Chapter 2 is an overview of bridges, and rarely dedicates more than a single paragraph to each bridge -- and with only one of them shown in any illustration (in fact, there's a serious lack of photographs for a book on famous structures!).

Later chapters get better, focusing on specific examples (I skipped ahead and read the one about the Confederation Bridge between Prince Edward Island and the mainland), but I'm just not finding Petroski's writing very engaging -- it reads like newspaper articles, rather than the engaging first-person stories Eberhart tells in Why Things Break or the detailed histories in Why Buildings Fall Down.

I've decided that I'm not going to read Pushing the Limits straight through. I am going to keep by my bed and read the chapters at random when I'm tired of comic strips. There are some chapters which I'm definitely interested in, in spite of not enjoying the writing: Petroski covers the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao (which also appears on the cover), the collapse of the WTC, the Three Gorges Dam, etc. I may post more comments if I hit any particularly interesting bits.

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