Engineering in Plain Sight, by Grady Hillhouse, No Starch Press
Perhaps the best way to describe Engineering in Plain Sight is as an answer to the question, “What am I looking at?” If you’re like me, you have family members and acquaintances who think your engineering degree automatically allows you to be fully acquainted with the functions of the infrastructure they see everyday. So you find yourself continually bombarded with annoying questions about the role of each of the gizmos attached to the utility pole in the front yard, how the city gets water to go into and out of the water tower on the edge of town, and what all the equipment does that sits at the neighborhood utility station. Now, thanks to Hillhouse’s book, you can confidently explain such matters even if you never encountered any of them in your engineering classes.
The book covers eight areas having structures and buildings you’re likely to encounter everyday and have some curiosity about: Aspects of the electrical grid, communications between your home and office, roadways, bridges and tunnels, railways, dams and water-related structures, municipal waste water and the water system, and construction.
Author Grady Hillhouse is a civil engineer and a professional communicator, and he does a good job of explaining all these areas in a way that doesn’t involve math. You don’t need a background in engineering to understand any of his explanations, and he doesn’t assume much of a background in any of the disciplines he covers—for example, he takes the time to explain ac current in the grid section.
Nevertheless, though the book contains not a single equation, it has enough detail to satisfy even a lot of detailed questions about infrastructure. In the electrical grid section, it covers the equipment in a substation, what’s on a typical utility pole, the role of electrical distribution equipment you’re likely to see, the workings of power stations, and more. It also covers the communication gear you see on cell towers and lashed to suburban utility poles. The section on roadways covers how highways get laid out as well as the construction of highway earthwork and retaining walls. By reading Hillhouse’s book, you’ll also understand how highway tunnels and bridges are constructed, as well as coastal ports, locks, levees and floodwalls, dams, and how your city treats its sewage and waste water.
All in all, just the book for engineers who don’t want to seem like ignoramuses to some of their pesky relatives.
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