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  • Lessons amid the Rubble: An Introduction to Post-Disaster Engineering and Ethics
  • Wang Nan (bio)
Lessons amid the Rubble: An Introduction to Post-Disaster Engineering and Ethics. By Sarah K. A. Pfatteicher. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010. Pp. 186. $55/$24.95.

Ever since the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in September 2001, people have struggled to draw lessons from the disastrous event. There are military and security lessons, international affairs and political lessons, lessons about religious radicalism, and more. Sarah Pfatteicher’s unique perspective is to ask about lessons relevant to engineering and engineering education. She sees the collapse of the Twin Towers as offering an opportunity to make deeper connections between engineering ethics and engineering disasters. Her analysis of the disaster from the point of view of history and philosophy of engineering aims to encourage concern for the real meaning of the engineering profession and engineering education, especially “for exploring the purposes, goals, and responsibilities of the American engineering profession” (p. 6).

Engineering ethics education in the past has mostly promoted the idea that engineers need to raise their consciousness about possibilities for disaster and avoid social or economic pressures to cut corners. Such a view is easily associated with the idea that engineering is nothing more than “applied science.” Pfatteicher attempts to challenge old assumptions and goes considerably beyond the more limited engagements of the past.

In six chapters, the author provides an extended overview of multiple engineering investigations into the collapse of the Twin Towers, while relating these to other engineering autopsies of more than a hundred years of mostly structural engineering–related disasters in North America, from a Dixon, Illinois, river failure in 1873 to the tearing loose of the Kansas City Hyatt Regency skywalk in 1981. The analysis reveals six deceptively simple lessons about or characteristics of the engineering enterprise, each embodying a paradox and ethical dilemma.

First, engineering practice is an imperfect process, because it is full of ambiguity, although it is constructed around engineering theory, which exhibits a sense of certainty. Second, though success is the goal of engineering, engineers must be open to the possibility of failure and learn from it when it occurs. Third, the complexity of the real world usually goes beyond what engineers truly know; in other words, engineering expertise has limits. Fourth, concern for public safety often raises impossible expectations; there are always constraints on how much safety engineers can ensure. Fifth, engineers achieve success through commitment and hard work, but these traits function best when restrained or moderated by other factors. And finally, although current engineering courses rely on memory [End Page 963] and teach obedience to established rules, a balance between conservatism and creativity is central to engineering design.

Summarizing her reflections, Pfatteicher sees engineering as “a complex interaction of people, interests, powers, and objects” (p. 9). Rephrased in her conclusion, engineering is characterized as “interconnected, complex, ambiguous, passion-filled, messy, people-oriented, and hard” (p. 135). On the basis of such an understanding, Pfatteicher argues that engineering education in the future should adopt three goals. First, it should teach students to expect both success and failure. Second, it should help engineers learn to be at once creative and conservative in solving problems. Third, it should inculcate both engineering expertise and broad knowledge of social context derived from the social sciences and the humanities.

This book is as much a critical reflection on literature about the Twin Towers—from celebrations and architectural criticisms before the terrorist attacks through popular and technical reports on the collapse to proposals for integrating 9/11 into university courses—as it is about engineering. But given her emphasis on engineering education and ethics, Pfatteicher reveals the centrality of engineering to the world in which we all now live, engineers and non-engineers alike. Her struggles to come to terms with the danger of focusing on technical issues in order to avoid facing emotional ones have implications broader than engineering.

In general, Pfatteicher’s retrospective on more than 100 years of engineering history in North America through the lens of the 9/11 experience is a unique contribution to engineering self-understanding. It is a valuable...


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pp. 963-964
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