Teschler on Topic
Leland Teschler • Executive Editor
On Twitter @ DW_LeeTeschler
The 20th anniversary of the 9-11-01 terrorist attacks has fostered a lot of media reflection on lessons learned. Less appreciated is the introspection the tragedy has brought about in construction engineering.
An example can be found in the Arizona State University classroom of Prof. Barzin Mobasher who teaches a senior-level course in structural steel design. For about the past 15 years he has used the World Trade Center collapse to illustrate principles of failure mechanics and to show why engineers must adopt conservative design practices.
Now, of course, most of Mobasher’s engineering students weren’t alive during the 9-11 attacks. Nevertheless, he finds images of the WTC still have an impact. “It is a reminder that something you might dismiss as a boring subject in the classroom can become of paramount importance,” he says. “I use the WTC to show them that what we as engineers do, matters. We take pride in what we do, and this is why we are conservative in our designs.”
In recent years, Mobasher’s lessons have expanded to address spurious claims from 9-11 truthers who believe conspiracy theories about demolition of the WTC buildings. “When you look at the amount of misinformation out there, engineers and people skilled in the discipline have a responsibility to argue on behalf of science. I tell my students they are obligated to speak the truth about the WTC if they find themselves in a discussion. They know the charts and graphs that explain steel’s behavior, so they have a responsibility as an engineer to not just be silent when somebody throws mud at scientific ideas.
Mobasher has had his own frustrating run-ins with 9-11 truthers. “In the early years I was inundated by people sending video, disks, and email who wanted me to hop on the bandwagon. It got to the level of harassment. There were four or five people who wanted me to comment or support their theories. In those cases I would try to find out if they understood mechanics or materials. If they really didn’t understand, I would tell them they need to communicate in mathematical terms in ways people understand. There is nothing emotional about it. It is all about how the numbers work out,” he says.
Truthers, Mobasher explains, are trying to put together a puzzle by mismatching things. “There is a lot of data cherry picking. Science doesn’t work that way. The idea that demolition was involved is total nonsense. The studies of WTC5 give a clear explanation of why that building collapsed,” he says.
That brings us to the 3,486 architects and engineers who signed a petition to re-open the 9/11 investigation because they feel “explosives … might have been the actual cause of the destruction of the World Trade Center Twin Towers and Building 7.” But consider: The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics puts the total number of civil engineers and architects in the U.S. at about 445,400. That means the petition signers comprise a little less than 1% of that total.
However, petition signers are not limited to civil engineers. A review of the list turns up electrical engineers, industrial engineers, chemical engineers, and those from other disciplines. A point to note is, at least where I went to school, it was possible to complete a four-year degree in these areas with an exposure to static analysis that was limited to freshman and sophomore physics.
Perhaps a few petition signers could benefit from auditing a structural steel design course of the type taught by Prof. Mobasher. DW
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