Flying Buttresses, Entropy, and O-rings Summary

James L. Adams

Flying Buttresses, Entropy, and O-rings

James Adams is a professor of engineering in the Department of Values, Technology, Science, and Society at Stanford University. His book grows out of a synthesis of concerns suggested by the interdisciplinary nature of his academic discipline. Adams’ analysis moves on two parallel tracks, discussing what modern engineering is, and simultaneously analyzing its pervasive role in web of the modern social fabric. The author addresses a dual audience: the general public which has only a dim notion of what an engineer does, and engineers themselves who, deeply involved in their own subspecialties, are unaware of the social forces that direct their efforts or the pervasive social impact of their work.

Beginning with a discussion of the origins of engineering problems and the role of design and invention in solving them, Adams elucidates the relationship of mathematics, science, and basic research to the engineer’s role, whether he or she is splicing a gene, designing a space shuttle, or seeking a better way to manufacture paperclips. In subsequent chapters, he outlines the role of the engineer in developing and testing processes and products. An entire chapter is devoted to the engineer’s critical relationship to manufacturing and assembly processes.

Chapters 8 and 9 of Adam’s book are entitled Money and Business and Regulation. In the broad context the author has chosen for his discussion of engineering, these chapters are as important as those devoted to science and mathematics. Adams’ point is that a society as technologically based as ours cannot make informed choices about its future without an understanding of the technology and engineering processes upon which it rests. Equally, its engineers cannot operate in their own narrow fields of specialization without a sense of how their work contributes to the shape of society today and tomorrow.