The book Pushing the Limits: New Adventures in Engineering by Henry Petroski describes the history of engineering through the evolution of bigger and longer bridges, taller buildings, and the constant conflict between aesthetics and function. Petroski the writer, a professor of civil engineering and of history at Duke University, returns to his roots of engineering. The man who has written on everything from the design of the bookshelf to the design of the pencil returns to more traditional engineering topics. Despite the title, more than half the book is taken up with bridges. The rest is a hodgepodge of dams and so forth.
Petroski writes at a level that failed to engage me, a lay-engineer. I love his previous books, on bookshelves and pencils. But this book is more technical, drops more names, and seems to need more prior knowledge in engineering to properly understand the great feats he describes. He makes a valiant attempt to show, not tell, by describing the immense thickness of the steel coils necessary for some of the suspension bridges. His descriptions of the different kinds of bridges, from suspension bridges to floating bridges, will engage the mind of the curious amateur as Petroski lays out the problems of deep water, ecology, potential water damage to the bridge itself, and aesthetics. He has a way also of focusing on the beauty of the engineered objects even as he describes the politicking necessary to get them built.
He has a short chapter on how the World Trade Center fell. He has another short chapter on the Three Gorges Dam in China, focusing mainly on his personal visit to the site and a little on the archeological and social loss that some people complain about.
Altogether, this is not one of his best books. Though his writing is clear and his analyses thorough, the book focuses more on bridges than the broad title suggests and focuses more on the history of engineering than on the future. In my mind, it lacks the general interest of his previous books. Engineering fans and Petroski fans will enjoy his latest book, but the new or less engaged reader would be better served reading one of his other books.