Extra Credit Reading

Boss Cat is still away, so this editorial mouse is going to play on the blog again. (Hey, Walt! You said you weren't going to log on while you were on vacation. Got a little online dependency goin' there?) Last time I posted, I mentioned Keith Larson's review of Richard Hofstader's  new book, I Am a Strange Loop. I've read a bit of Hofstader in my time, and Keith's suggestion that he's a "beach read" to the contrary, his work is the kind that makes you pull up your socks and hope your freshman philosphy course is enough to get you through at least the table of contents.  For those of us not quite up to that level of intellectual exercise at the end of a long day, I recommend a different book, The Ghost Map  by Steven Johnson. If engineering is about problem-solving, then this is a book for engineers. It is the story of the 1854 cholera epidemic in London and how a doctor and a local clergyman working together figured out the source of the contamination and coincidentally led to a solution to a problem that left unsolved might have put an end to industrial urbanization as we know it. In 1854, nobody knew that cholera was caused by contaminated water. Popular wisdom and the scientific community suggested the cause was miasma -- bad air -- a not entirely unreasonable conclusion, since the worst of the fatalities occurred in urban areas that smelled really bad, such as most of London. London in 1854 had a population of 3,000,000 people and a sewer system that dated back to Elizabeth I. In spite of various attempts at waste removal, most of it ended up, one way or another, back in the Thames River, the source of London's water supply.  The miasma theory was convenient in another way. It confirm the Victorian sociological "truth"  that, because most of the deaths occurred in poorer neighborhoods, they could be attributed in part to the "unhealthy lives" and "bad habits" of the poor. That many "decent" people also died of cholera didn't seem to register with many.  But Dr. John Snow and Rev. Henry Whitehead working together, traced the source of contamination of the 1854 epidemic to a single contaminated pump where most of the people in a particaular neighborhood got their drinking water. By convincing the local governing council to remove the pump handle, the two man stopped the worst of the epidemic in its tracks. How the two men, without computers, sophisticated measuring and testing equipment,  wireless anything or any of the other acoutrements of modern life proved out the "waterborne" theory of the disease and even tracked "patient zero," is a story of basic scientific technique and a tribute to those fundamental characteristics of the good engineer -- curiousity, tenacity, objectivity, and a willingness to work really hard and look beyond the obvious. Their story also touches on such "modern" engineering virtues as "teamwork" and "collaboration." (Whitehead didn't really believe in Snow's theory, but since his parish was the hardest hit by the epidemic, he was willing to put aside his own scepticism to lend his invaluable local knowledge to Snow's research.) In the end, Snow's and Whitehead's work was part of the impetus to the development of the London sewer system.  While not as far up in the intellectual ether as Hofstadter's work, The Ghost Map is nothing less than a great story and, in its own way, a tribute to all those of you out there that work in the water/wastewater space.  

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  • As long as we are listing our favorite books about engineering, I recommend Jacquard's Web: How a Hand Loom Led to the Birth of the Information Age by James Essinger. The title describes it well, and Jacquard was quite an engineer back in 19th century when engineers and scientists were called philosophers because no one knew what else to call them. Written with the dramatic pacing of a novel, but also packed with great technical detail. Highly recommended.

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