Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Forensic Engineering and Learning from Disasters

I have just about finished reading Henry Petroski's book, "The Essential Engineer," which was published in 2010. It is filled with excellent ideas about why engineering is different from science and how science and engineering and their practitioners and innovators must work together to address the grand challenges today from renewable energy to reducing vulnerability and even to securing cyberspace.

Henry Petroski is a professor of civil engineering and history at Duke University.

Coincidentally, in today's New York Times, there is an article by William Broad, "Taking Lessons from What Went Wrong," which begins with the eye-catching sentence: Disasters teach more than successes, with the overall thesis that disasters can spur innovation. The article includes an interview with Petroski and a graphic photo of the BP oil rig disaster.

Technological feats that define the modern world are sometimes the result of events that some might wish to forget, from the collapse of the Tacoma-Narrows bridge in 1940 due to winds (with no lives lost), to the collapse of the Minneapolis bridge in 2007 (with 13 lives lost), to the sinking of the Titanic on its maiden voyage (with over 1,500 deaths, some due to hypothermia), and even the World Trade Center disaster (with approximately 3,000 deaths). Now we are all reeling from the BP oil rig disaster with ups and downs on almost a daily basis as to progress or lack thereof regarding the spill containment and the propagation of the massive effects on the environment and affected economic sectors and regions.

According to Petroski, disasters are “ a great source of knowledge — and humbling, too — sometimes that’s necessary.” He is also the author of “Success Through Failure,” a 2006 book. “Nobody wants failures. But you also don’t want to let a good crisis go to waste.”

I had written earlier on this blog about forensic accounting and we had even hosted Dr. Brian Levine who spoke on his research on the forensic investigation of the Internet and mobile devices.

Our modern era demands a new area of expertise -- that of forensic engineering, which should clearly have risk management and policy analysis as essential constructs to assist in lessons learned (so mistakes do not get repeated in the future).

Interestingly, Petroski uses as vivid examples in both of his two books noted above the challenges of engineering design in the context of bridge design. He considers bridge designers as very creative individuals who develop mental constructs of a bridge, combined with aesthetics, and then design mathematically the functional structure, which, I might add, should last for many years and support the weight of numerous vehicles.

My uncle, Stanley Jarosz, is an award-winning bridge designer, who, although he is almost 92 years old, still works several days a week at an engineering firm. He is one of my greatest inspirations and an exceptional role model and gentleman (who, I might add, is also a big opera aficionado).

I had the pleasure recently of seeing my uncle and my terrific cousin, Andrew (who, I might add, is a fellow Brown University grad), in NYC. I discussed Petroski's "The Essential Engineer" with my uncle and noted Petroski's almost mystic adulation of bridge designers.

Solving the grand challenges faced by our civilization will require the cooperation and the working together of our best, creative minds, as well as capturing, in a quantifiable and rigorous manner, the risk associated with the resulting innovations.