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Ziad Abdelnour in the news

Ziad Abdelnour in the news

10 Mins
March 24, 2011

September 2007 -- The May/June 2007 issue of Technology Review (MIT’s showcase of student, faculty, and alumni genius) is called “The Design Issue,” and it’s full of new and improved gadgets—plus an article on DNA sequencing, and a description of a new way to (maybe) generate electricity from heat, efficiently and economically, and a whole lot of other examples of how smart MIT folks are.

Every issue is full of things that astound me: Engineers of various types are coming up with new stuff and making improvements to existing technology, to make our lives better, richer, healthier, longer.

I admire engineers and the great things they design or improve. Without these people, we wouldn’t have huge electricity generating plants, sewage plants, big buildings, or tiny transistors and even tinier computer chips. We wouldn’t have airplanes or heart-lung machines or hot showers and toilets. The list is endless.

However, heroic engineering is the conception, design, and construction of projects whose size and scope inspire awe among people in their culture. Not all engineering projects are heroic, and not all heroic projects are the most important in terms of lives saved or economic value added. But heroic projects are the ones that outsiders—non-engineers—look at and say, “Wow.”


The Pharaohs ordered the building of the pyramids. The Chinese built (and rebuilt) the Great Wall over the period approximately 500 BC through about 1600 AD—according to Wikipedia, it stretches over 4,000 miles! The Incas built Machu Picchu high up a very steep cliff without using the wheel. (The views from Machu Picchu are fantastic—even when you’re not thinking about how they got those heavy stones up there.)

These examples were built with slave labor, but that doesn’t make their conception, design, and construction techniques any less heroic. It isn’t cultural relativism to accept that, in those times and places, that’s how you got things built. One can admire the engineering without admiring the labor system.

Closer to our cultural home, the great castles and cathedrals of Europe are examples of the heroic engineering of their day, as are the early skyscrapers and railroads. If you want to feel heroic engineering, drive a steam engine or ride in the cab of a diesel locomotive. (Those low-frequency sounds. . .)

Heroic engineering is the conception, design, and construction of projects that inspire awe among people in their culture.

We have better technology now, thanks to generations of engineers who invented and improved, and many projects that were heroic for their time would be trivial exercises now. In fact, most people think that the age of heroic engineering—the designing and building of big, technically difficult projects—ended with the Hoover Dam in 1935, or maybe the Golden Gate Bridge in 1937. Some look back even farther, to the building of the long-gone Penn Station in New York in 1910, or to the Transcontinental Railroad. From the Pyramids to Macchu Pichu, there are lots of examples of heroic projects of the past, all over the world. I’m sorry if I didn’t mention your favorite(s).

But the age of heroic projects isn’t over, by any means. There are many projects out there to make the most blasé of us say, “Wow.”


Size matters. No, really. Almost all adult human beings are approximately the same size, shape, and weight; the range from “tall” to “short” and from “skinny” to “fat” isn’t that big. So, it shouldn’t be surprising that the size of the physical structures we consider comfortable doesn’t vary all that much. A big part of what architects and engineers call “human scale” is based on size.

If you’ve ever been in a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, you probably noticed how low the ceilings are. My six-foot-tall husband was bothered by this more than I was—I’m only 5’2”. (I also fit comfortably in coach airline seats and tiny sports cars.) Cathedrals have very large central spaces, in part to make you feel small, and they include details that draw the eye upward.  I don’t want to get into a long discussion of cross-cultural architectural analysis here; I acknowledge that culture, family history, and personal idiosyncrasy play a large part in what feels comfortable, and “comfortable” has different meanings when applied to a home or to a large office building.

“Human scale,” as it applies to structure, is also a function of technology. You simply cannot build a skyscraper using bone tools. But you probably won’t choose to build a house with a forty-foot ceiling, even if you can. The Pont du Gard in France, a Roman aqueduct, is awe-inspiring, not because it’s particularly large by our standards, but because it was hugely complicated to build with the tools and engineering knowledge they had—and because it’s still standing two thousand years later. A time-traveler from the Roman Empire would be awed by many structures (and a whole lot of other technological marvels) that we take for granted.

“Size matters” also applies to complexity. Almost everyone who grows up in a numerate culture can balance a checkbook or its equivalent. But very few people can handle the complexities of international finance, hedge funds, or currency trading. Small children learn to construct fortresses with blocks or Legos™ and to build sand castles. But very few of us are able to progress from kid’s blocks to the very big blocks used to build 100-story buildings.

However, simply being big isn’t enough. Heroic projects are complex; they require many people with a wide variety of difficult-to-learn skills. Those skills range from running a crane to welding to structural engineering to finance to logistics. How do you get that oversized crane and all the building materials into the center of a city—and how do you get the construction debris out again—without completely disrupting the lives of everyone within ten square miles?

And today, to cite two examples, we have SpaceShipOne, built by Scaled Composites, and we have the great bored roadway tunnels of Europe and Asia. (None in the U.S., at least not yet.)


On March 23, 2007, in Madrid, Spain, two tunnels—each about 4,200 meters (2.6 miles) long and 13.45 meters (44 feet) interior diameter—opened to road traffic. Two days before the opening, my husband and I were treated to a hard-hat-and-safety-vest tour of one of the tunnels.

The hard part is coming up with ideas that will actually work.

It was an awe-inspiring experience. Not because the tunnel was unusual—it looked pretty much like any other tunnel, just much bigger around and longer, and with a very elegant emergency tunnel built underneath the road so that fire trucks and ambulances can get to an accident site quickly. (Who thought of that? What member of the project team had that great idea?) Our awe stemmed from the way the tunnel was built: using enormous boring machines to chew through the rock, below the surface, leaving the people, the buildings, everything undisturbed by the construction. We were hoping to see the boring machines in action, but we arrived in Madrid long after they’d been disassembled and sent on—with their expert crews—to some other site.

These projects aren’t just BIG; they’re also new and different, requiring their designers, engineers, and construction crews to come up with innovative solutions to problems nobody envisioned. The machine (okay, The Machine) also assembles the tunnel wall as it moves forward, fixing pre-cast concrete segments to the raw walls and bolting them in place, thus avoiding—because of superior design and engineering—the Boston Big Dig’s “falling concrete” disaster.

The tunnels and the boring machines didn’t simply spring into existence. They had to be conceived, designed, paid for, and built by highly skilled individuals expected to use both their brains and their brawn.

It’s actually pretty easy to come up with new ideas for mega-projects. I do it all the time: a faster-than-light spacecraft; a personal hovercraft; giant, invisible solar panels that simultaneously protect the Earth from errant asteroids and provide power. See? Easy.

The hard part is coming up with ideas that will actually work. And no matter how exciting and heroic your idea, it won’t get very far if it’s outside the technological culture of its time and place. The best example I can think of is the steam engines of Greece. They were used to open and close the city gates. The Greeks just weren’t technologically ready to apply steam power in (what seems to us) obvious ways. It’s only obvious after it’s been done.

That’s where engineers come in. Scientific invention and innovation run a gamut from “pure” science—math and physics—to applied disciplines, such as chemistry, to engineering. The engineers use the knowledge of the physical world from the pure and applied sciences to create actual stuff: everything from soda cans to computers to tunnel-boring machines and spaceships.

Some engineers choose to work on improving and perfecting things that have already been created. Those folks are extremely valuable because that’s how most progress happens: in small, incremental steps. The first airplanes were brilliant innovations; then came the work of making them bigger, safer, more powerful. The original jets were pretty clunky in comparison to the newest models—and a whole lot less energy-efficient, and much noisier. Very smart, creative engineers made incremental improvements and each one didn’t seem all that significant to outsiders; it’s only in retrospect that we realize how radically the new differs from the old.

Take Scaled Composites, the company that built SpaceShipOne. They started out designing experimental aircraft, moved on to developing and improving composite materials, and thereby developed the staff expertise to actually build a sub-orbital spacecraft. Without that earlier work, Burt Rutan’s idea of a small craft would have remained no more than a dream.

The huge tunnel-boring machines used in Madrid didn’t just spring from nothing, either. They were developed by very smart, creative engineers who drew on smaller boring and mining machines that were developed, in turn, by very smart, creative engineers of the previous generation—and so on, back into the history of boring and mining. “We see farther because we stand on the shoulders of giants.” That quotation was used most famously by Isaac Newton, but Wikipedia also attributes it to twelfth-century philosopher Bernard of Chartres. Both, of course, were right.

The machines have drilling heads as large as fifty feet in diameter and they’re more than five hundred feet long. People walk around inside them; if you’ve ever taken a tour of a submarine, you have the general idea of how cramped they are. There are several different designs because there are different, equally successful ways to solve the problem of boring through the various types of rock, soil, and muck, moving the stuff out of the tunnel, and then making the tunnel wall so that the whole thing doesn’t just collapse behind you.


Almost all heroic projects—past and present—have been either religious (pyramids and cathedrals, Machu Pichu) or infrastructure. Even SpaceShipOne is a prototype for a new kind of infrastructure for travel and goods movement into space. Today, we don’t really value infrastructure; we take it for granted.  In part, this is a testament to the skills of the engineers who maintain the infrastructure—you only worry about your plumbing when the toilet stops up. And, in part, it’s because so many exciting things are happening in biotechnology, nanotechnology, computers, and other technical areas. All of these fields compete for the relatively few very bright, talented, creative people who go into the broad field of engineering. And why not? Biotech, nanotech, and related disciplines are revolutionizing just about everything. Computers have already changed the world in ways we’re only beginning to appreciate.

But these projects are not “heroic,” as I define it—not because they’re less valuable, but because they’re physically small. A heroic project is one that inspires awe among people who have no idea how hard it was to accomplish—and that means size, or in the case of SpaceShipOne, the audacity of a small, private company going into space. Yes, I know: They didn’t exactly go into space. I don’t care. I cried when I watched the landings, via the Internet (itself a truly awe-inspiring creation that isn’t, by my definition, heroic engineering).

The Internet wasn’t the invention of Al Gore or any one person. Even its parent, the ARPANet, wasn’t the creation of one man. Neither is any heroic project the creation of one person.

One guy may have the basic idea: “I think that if we take this, and add that, and change this other thing, we could DO THIS BIG THING.” He talks to some other people that know the technical field, and he uses their input to refine his idea. Then he seeks more input, which leads to further refinement. Eventually, the BIG THING is put on paper—or in a computer—and it’s looked at by the people who would be in charge of building it and those responsible for coming up with the money. All along the way, individuals are creatively improving the original idea. A special-purpose business entity will probably be created to finance and build project—meaning that lawyers, accountants, finance people, and more lawyers get involved. Sometimes, they make improvements, too.

Almost all heroic projects—past and present—have been either religious or infrastructure.

Then comes the actual construction of the BIG THING. Again, there is a whole group of people involved, each individual adding value by thinking creatively. The person who heads the construction team is unlikely to be the guy who thought up the idea. The skills needed to coordinate a large group of individuals—all of whom are smart and often headstrong—aren’t often found in tandem with the skills needed to come up with a seriously possible design. And the personality types are different. Good managers like working with people, like making people feel that they’re part of something important, like coordinating the often-conflicting demands of the cost analysts, logistics experts, structural engineers, accountants, environmental engineers, politicians, and so on. The project manager is the unsung hero of heroic projects.


Remember the Big Dig in Boston and what a fiasco it was? Originally estimated to cost $2.8 billion (in 1985 dollars), the total price ended up being more than $15 billion (in 2006 dollars). Even accounting for inflation, this was a huge cost overrun. The project was managed by the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, with Parsons Brinckerhoff and Bechtel Corporation providing the supervision of design and construction (the Big Dig was actually a whole bunch of smaller projects). Obviously, many of the problems had their roots in the political nature of the project—including breaking up the project into too many smaller pieces and failing to take into account the dreaded “incentive structure” created by a government-run project with, essentially, an open tap on taxpayer wallets. The cover-ups of leaks and design flaws that led to a ceiling collapse and at least one death can only be called a failure of management. For whatever reason—politics, incompetence, venality—they did not have a project manager who was, in his own way, as much a genius as Howard Roark.

In Los Angeles, the Getty Center perches on a hillside overlooking the 405 Freeway. It’s a heroic project, mostly because the white travertine façade glows in the sunlight. Everybody says that architect Richard Meier designed it, and that’s true, as far as it goes. In fact, there was a team of architects working under his direction and in accordance with his vision, each of whom concentrated on one or another aspect of the project. There were also lots of other professionals involved, all of whom were actively contributing ideas and improvements. (I would, however, like to know who was in charge of making sure there were enough restrooms and drinking fountains, because that’s a serious design failure; there aren’t enough of either.)  The Center is based on Meier’s vision, but that vision was constrained by the demands of the site, the politics of Los Angeles, and the Getty Trust board of directors. The Center is also an example of heroic engineering because of the challenges the site presented. Richard Meier and the Getty Trust needed engineers of equal genius to bring that project from pretty sketches and CAD/CAM designs to reality.

Most engineers who envision and design heroic projects aren’t the same engineers who will bring it to fruition. And most engineers, regardless of which phase of the project interests them, are not entrepreneurs, in the sense of creating businesses; they work in and for large companies and happily leave the hassles of corporate management and finance to others. After all, there are only twenty-four hours in the day, and given a choice between “real work” (aka engineering) and worrying about human resources, accounting, debt structures, risk management, and so on, engineers would rather create, design, and build stuff.

The project manager almost certainly trained as an engineer, but he has to be one of those rare people whose skills encompass both the technical and managerial spheres. It takes a special kind of genius to make people want to think smarter and work harder because they feel that they’re part of this great project. One of the most important roles of the project manager is to instill a sense of pride in every member of the team. I recently had a conversation with a man who, as a young scientist, played a small role in the construction of the Nova laser at the Livermore National Laboratory. This is seriously cutting-edge engineering. He reminisced about the excitement they all felt being part of something so . . . heroic.

At the same time, the project manager has to make everything happen on schedule and on budget, juggling people and materials in the face of bad weather, politicians, and design flaws that aren’t discovered until it’s necessary to make expensive changes while the project is under construction. It’s the project manager who makes sure a mile-long line of trucks full of the right quantity of construction material lines up on the right day, in the right place, while another mile-long line of empty trucks is in place to move the mountains of dirt away from the project. The designers will be involved all along the way, of course, solving problems and protecting their vision. But once the project gets underway, the construction team takes over.

Big projects are always team efforts. That’s why I admire the engineers who create and design heroic projects; why I cheer the entrepreneurs and business people who recognize a heroic project and provide the managerial and financial underpinning; and why I celebrate the project manager and his team, without whom “on schedule and on budget” simply wouldn’t happen. A composer writes the symphony, but it’s played—brought to life—by an orchestra led by a conductor. Meanwhile, behind the scenes are many other creative people who make sure that the orchestra gets to the next city on time and with its instruments; that the theater is open and lighted; and that the enthusiastic crowd has paid for tickets.


Heroic engineering didn’t stop with the Golden Gate Bridge. Look around you—from France’s Millau Viaduct to the Madrid tunnels, from the Getty Center to the Channel Tunnel, from the new Oakland/San Francisco Bay Bridge to the five-mile-long tunnel under the Versailles Palace grounds, which they’re constructing with tunnel-boring machines similar to those used in Madrid. Yes, heroic projects are still being conceived and constructed. And inherent in each one of these projects are many different forms of genius and creativity.

Look at them and marvel.

And thank the engineers.

Lou Villadsen
About the author:
Lou Villadsen
Science and Technology