A memoir’s rudimentary scientific errors expose the limits of a ‘broad education.’
By Henry Petroski
Whenever I have given a lecture on mechanics, I would not be surprised if a student came up to me after class to ask if I had seen a particular episode of the Discovery Channel’s MythBusters show. I usually said I had not, because I have viewed only a few of the almost 300 episodes. In the popular series, sometimes outlandish hypotheses loosely connected to science and engineering have been tested, often in a dramatic fashion replete with explosions and crashed vehicles.
Episode 176, for example, considered the claim that the accumulation of methane in a sewer could result in an explosion that sends a manhole cover skyward. Beginning with scale models and ending with a full-scale experimental setup, the mythbusters team demonstrated to their satisfaction that the claim was valid. And Episode 77 considered whether a truck carrying birds would weigh less if the birds inside were flying about. The mythbusters showed that it did not, something engineering students should already know from Newton’s Third Law.
Adam Savage, one of the hosts of MythBusters, recently published Every Tool’s a Hammer, a book whose dustjacket describes it as a chronicle of his life as a maker. In the book, Savage states that, at the outset of the television show, he and his cohost, Jamie Hyneman, thought of themselves “as pretty good engineers and problem solvers.” But he also admits that, over the course of the show’s lifetime, they came to appreciate, through screw ups and downright failures, that they had their limitations. In this regard, Savage’s book is a chronicle of learning from failure, a phenomenon that should be familiar to every engineer and taught to every engineering student.
What struck me repeatedly in the book, however, was that Savage must not have had a formal engineering education. This appears to be confirmed by Wikipedia, whose “Adam Savage” entry mentions nothing at all about his attending college. Still, I know of plenty of autodidacts and college dropouts who have proven, through their achievements, that formal education is not an essential prerequisite for success.
Among the clues to Savage’s lack of an engineering education is his mistaking Newton’s first law of motion—that an object at rest tends to stay at rest unless acted upon by an outside force—for the first law of thermodynamics, which is about heat, work, and energy. Another hint occurs beside a photo showing a homemade compass cleverly fabricated from a wire coat hanger. The caption describes the device as a “protractor.”
I have taught enough engineering students to know that some of them might have made the same kinds of mistakes in conversation or even on a quiz. Granted, it is more important to know the concept behind a law of nature or how to operate an instrument of geometry than to know its correct name, but to find such errors in a book published by a major publisher raises other questions.
The typical book production process involves the text being scrutinized by a number of editors and proofreaders. Whereas the author may be the person ultimately responsible for introducing an error of fact into his or her manuscript, that error should be caught by someone in the course of turning the manuscript into a printed book. That an incorrectly named law of nature and basic instrument of geometry escaped detection and correction in the process of publishing Every Tool’s a Hammer suggests that no one in the line of production had either an engineering or a scientific education—or even the rudiments of the knowledge either conveys.
This would not be surprising, for the typical credential for an entry level position in publishing is a liberal arts degree. Mythbuster Adam Savage’s book inadvertently busts the myth that earning such a degree signals the achievement of a broad education. A broad education should, of course, include a rudimentary knowledge of science and engineering and their basic laws and tools. It is a sad commentary on our system of higher education that it apparently does not always do so.
Henry Petroski is the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University.
Image Courtesy of Catherine Petroski