To Forgive Design: Understanding Failure

Philip Nobel writes:

Fifty people are killed off in the first chapter of Henry Petroski’s To Forgive Design:Understanding Failure when a plane crashes en route to Buffalo. Thirteen hundred or more died when the levees failed in New Orleans. The number of victims grows with each example: the earthquake in Haiti; the collapse of the World Trade Center; the fire on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig. This is Petroski’s third book on engineering failure since 1985, and here he has chosen to examine failure in the widest professional and cultural sense, with the aim of preventing it, but also in an attempt to understand ‘the nature of failure itself’. Still, even without mentioning Chernobyl, the body count reaches five figures. It’s those deaths – and the habits of thought, the human bungling, the pressures within the profession and beyond it that cause a thing to break and fall, to explode, melt or burst – that we are asked to understand, and perhaps to forgive.

(LRB 21 February 2013)

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