Reading Diary: On the Grid by Scott Huler

In his incredibly wonderful new book, On the Grid: A Plot of Land, An Average Neighborhood, and the Systems that Make Our World Work, Scott Huler gives us three essential take-aways:

  • Thank God for engineers
  • Get out your wallet
  • Let's learn to love our infrastructure. (p. 217-225)

In fact, not much more need really be said about the book. In essence it's a kind of tribute and salute to the women and men who keep our highly technoligized society functioning. The people we often forget about, whose glamour pales in comparison to movie stars, singers, politicians, even police and fire departments who have a much higher profile. Huler is really talking about the engineers and technicians and workers who drive buses, build roads, survey new neighbourhoods, keep our lights on and make sure the waste from all of this activity gets carried away somewhere safe.

Of course, the perils of infrastructure are in the news these days, but I think the current troubles in Japan are only more indicative of the need to pay attention to the threads that keep our society running. Huler visits a local nuclear power plant in one of the chapters and I'd be curious about his thoughts on the long term place of nuclear power in a sustainable world energy mix. He does have some thoughts on the infrastructure workers involved in Japan right now.

Anyways, in the book Huler takes us all on tour with him as he explores the various types of infrastructure in his own city and neighbourhood: water, garbage, electricity, telecommunication, transportation, boundaries and surveys. He visits with the people who work on those systems and witnesses the daily work. He struggles with the short- and long-term challenges of keeping the lights on, literally.

And makes sure we start to understand how important it is to keep track of what's going on under the street as much as we keep track of what going on in all the buildings.

And he really makes sure we understand that all of this costs money to do right and that we should be willing to pay for it. And he doesn't shy away from some of the environmental issues either -- the impact our infrastructure choices make beyond our daily lives and on society and the planet as a whole.

I thought it would be interesting to take a sentence or two from each chapter to give a sense of the themes that run through the book -- and the countless little revelations about our infrastructure.

  • Chapter 1: land surveys: [about an old axle used as a place marker on his land] "It's a big, solid piece of iron sticking our of the ground, and it's been there for almost a century." (p. 27)
  • Chapter 2: the hydrological cycle: "So as I looked at the roots of Raleigh's infrastructure, I tried to think like water." (p. 32)
  • Chapter 3: water treatment & distribution: "'The only time customers see when they're gonna be late for work because we've got a backhoe sitting in the middle of the road. The unfortunate thing about our job is that as long as we're doing a good job, nobody notices.'" (p. 69)
  • Chapter 4: waste water: "Until around World War I ... it was understood that watercourses were to some degree self-cleaning, that 'the solution to pollution is dilution.'" (p.92)
  • Chapter 5: roads: "'I'm using physical engineering methods to solve social engineering problems.'" (p. 108)
  • Chapter 6: electricity: "I counted no fewer than 15 electrical wires running up and down my street, not counting telephone and cable TV wires or the guy wires holding up the poles themselves."
  • Chapter 7: garbage: "Landfill entombment raises the prospect of perplexed future archaeologists, who will wonder why we took such enormous care to make sure our trash lasted for, basically, geologic time." (p. 161)
  • Chapter 8: telecommunications: "The complete contents of the Library of Congress would take just under 2 minutes to transmit on a 100 G fiber." (p. 184)
  • Chapter 9: transportation: "With its meandering, car-centered development, Raleigh offers an object lesson for how to discourage transit use." (p. 196)

You get the idea.

This is an important book, one that I would recommend very broadly. It's certainly a great acquisition for any academic library as well as any public library in any sized community. As far as school libraries go, this would be a fine purchase for any high school or even middle school library.

As well:

  • This would be a great "What is engineering really all about?" book for an Engineering 1000 course or any kind of capstone design course. It gives a sense of what engineers really do and the interconnectedness of that work.
  • I'd also recommend this as a book to send to any short-sighted, tax-cutting, worker-bashing politician you happen to know. You might also have a family member or friend who's in that camp as well -- this would make a great gift idea.
  • The book would also make a great "One campus, one book," again since it shows the interconnectedness of so much that we take for granted.

Huler, Scott. On the Grid: A Plot of Land, An Average Neighborhood, and the Systems that Make Our World Work. New York: Rodale, 2011. 248pp. ISBN-13: 978-1605296470

(Book provided by the publisher via Science Online 2011.)

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