WORLD’s 2018 Books of the Year
On March 15 of this year, a celebrated footbridge in Sweetwater, Fla., crashed into the evening news. The bridge was a key component of Florida International University, linking the main campus with student housing on the other side of a seven-lane boulevard. The design expressed forward thinking and innovation: Though it resembled a suspension bridge, the cables and tower were more for dramatic effect. The actual support came from a series of concrete trusses (triangles), repurposed for a new concept dubbed the “reinvented I-beam.”
The university engineering department created the design and utilized “Accelerated Bridge Construction” to make it happen: The bridge components were built elsewhere and assembled at the site. All went according to plan: Workers raised the 175-foot roadway-crossing span into position on March 10, with only a short disruption of traffic. Five days later workmen were adjusting the steel rods that reinforced the concrete struts, when the first diagonal suddenly fractured, folded, and dropped 950 tons of concrete onto the traffic below. Eight cars, stopped at a red light, were crushed; six travelers and one workman killed, nine others injured.
Later evaluation suggested flaws in the design, which may have been too innovative for its own good.
The incident is a reminder that American engineering, on the surface a string of triumphs (Erie Canal, Brooklyn Bridge, Hoover Dam), got there through a series of disasters like the “Ashtabula Horror” of 1876 and the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse of 1940. Engineering is probably the science/technical field with the most immediate consequences; lessons about metal tensions and structural weaknesses were usually learned the hard way.
Science itself is becoming an agent of change rather than discovery. What used to be an authoritative voice is now a tool of competing ‘values.’
However—from the stated goals of many university science departments, one might think that the only lessons remaining for American engineering were inclusiveness and diversity. In other words, we need more women in the department ASAP, especially women of color. In an essay published last August by the James G. Martin Center, professor Indrek Wichman of Michigan State warned that social justice warriors “have sought out the soft underbelly of engineering, where phrases such as ‘diversity’ and ‘different perspectives’ and ‘racial gaps’ and ‘unfairness’ and ‘unequal outcomes’ make up the daily vocabulary.”
It may come as a surprise that the field of steel and concrete even has a “soft underbelly,” but professor Wichman claims that equations, ratios, and aerodynamics are giving place to “group representation, hurt feelings, and ‘microaggressions’ in the profession.” Rather than empowering human beings through reliable infrastructure, the new engineering seeks to empower marginalized engineers.
Empowerment of minorities and women is the political flavor of the decade, but until the 21st century the “hard sciences” were mostly immune. The push to get more women in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math) directs grant money into gender-specific programs. My own daughter participated in a women-only aerospace project and was eyeing a career in that field. (Scholarships abounded for her age and sex, but other priorities emerged, namely motherhood.) Many women are proficient, even brilliant, in math and science, and we should encourage them. But the goal of equal representation of men and women in STEM creates artificial boundaries and skewed objectives.
Science itself is becoming an agent of change rather than discovery. What used to be an authoritative voice is now a tool of competing “values.” WORLD reported on Brown University censoring its own study of teen gender dysphoria (feeling unsure about one’s biological sex) when the results didn’t fit the narrative. Elsewhere in academia, a scholarly paper about Greater Male Variability Hypothesis—the preponderance of men at both ends of the intelligence scale—was tabled by a respected mathematics journal after a female academic complained. Math education, the most objective and impartial of fields, has come under fire as “unjust and grounded in a legacy of institutional discrimination” (statement by the National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics).
Twenty years ago, such rhetoric sounded silly. Now it’s spread from education departments to the hardest of hard sciences. The FIU bridge collapse reminds us that science and tech still have much to learn. But social justice is the wrong lesson.