Civil Engineering: Still the boring “bridges and sewers” department?

We MIT 1982ers derided the Civil Engineering majors as learning about “bridges and sewers.” Harvard thought Civil Engineering was so dull that they supposedly fired their entire (top-notch) department in the early 20th century. The administrators didn’t think that civil engineering was going to be interesting going forward (and debacles such as “Longfellow Bridge repairs will now take about as long as the original construction” may have proved them right).

I attended the renamed MIT Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering “new research breakfast” recently and learned what they’re up to.

MIT has a strong bias toward “engineer and build to solve all of the world’s problems.” This works best if you first gather the world’s smartest people. These are easy to identify because they are MIT students, graduates, or employees. (A TED-style event, October 5-8, 2015) offers a succinct summary of this philosophy: “Solve will inspire extraordinary people to work together to solve the world’s greatest challenges.”

This bias was apparent during the department head’s opening slides. The world population was going to grow to 10 billion people pretty soon and we were going to engineer transportation, food, and climate solutions for them all. There was no slide noting that we’ve built a lot of highways in the past 2000 years and yet still are plagued with the traffic jams that bedeviled contemporaries of Octavian (see “The Embattled Driver in Ancient Rome” by Matthews). Nor was there any slide noting that improved food production yields and medicine had been accompanied by a huge increase in human population so that at least some people remain without adequate food and medical care.

Is there any evidence that there are limits to engineering accomplishments? That we might not be able to build our way out of any uncomfortable situation? Right in the room with us it seemed to me that there was ample evidence. The speaker with the Windows 10 laptop was interrupted by a “not connected to network; backup not started” message over the slide (i.e., the programmers at Microsoft have yet to come up with a way of suppressing unimportant alerts when PowerPoint is in “show” mode). The speaker with the Macintosh notebook computer struggled for quite some time even to get the machine connected to the projector. Fifteen years ago I wondered “Given that these classrooms have all been recently remodeled at tremendous expense, why couldn’t there be a permanently mounted camera at the back of the classroom so that live streaming could be offered with a simple switch? Why do we have to call MIT A/V to send a person down with a tripod and camera taking up space at the back of the room if we want to have a video record?” What was the situation today? The room that we were in had been beautifully redone recently, complete with super expensive projector. The folks running the event wanting to stream it out live so they… called MIT A/V to send two people down. An enormous tripod and camera took up valuable space at the back of the room while a second area was set up in the corner to monitor and push the video out to the web.

Professor John Ochsendorf gave an interesting talk about fairly traditional civil engineering. He talked about the value of physical 3D-printed models, some of which indicate that a structure can support itself in situations where computer modeling predicts failure. This technique was used in the structural engineering for Professor Meejin Yoon‘s design for a memorial to Sean Collier, the MIT campus police officer killed by the Tsarnaev brothers. Yoon designed the form of the memorial but there was a question about whether steel pins were necessary to hold together the stone that she had spec’d. The physical 3D model led to a 66 percent reduction in the number of pins. Ochsendorf talked about the achievements of the Romans in building the Pantheon, e.g., using lighter concrete toward the top (see this article in Nautilus).

The opposite side of the field was demonstrated by Professor Lydia Bourouiba, who showed videos of people coughing and sneezing and discussed fluid dynamics models of disgusting human behavior. Why does it matter? Health care environments are set up on the assumption that you need to be about one meter away from a person who is coughing/sneezing. In fact, her research shows that seven meters is the safe distance. She noted that hospitals put most of their effort into protecting workers from disease; preventing patient-to-patient transmission is something for which a good case must be made.

How come we’re always sick? Professor Martin Polz explained that we’ve been running a massive evolutionary experiment with bacteria by pumping farm animals full of antibiotics. “The bacteria compete with the animal for food,” he noted, “so you get faster growth if you use antibiotics in quantities that are many orders of magnitude greater than what are used with humans.” He reminded us that the vast majority of bacteria are harmless, that we ingest billions of bacteria with every glass of water, and that the bacteria that are in and on us outnumber our own cells by a factor of 10. Now that we have antibiotic-resistant bacteria taking antibiotics can be a crazy bad idea. The drugs are broad-spectrum so they kill off a lot of harmless bacteria, thus opening up a big ecological niche within your body. That niche gets filled with the pathogenic antibiotic-resistant bacteria so by taking antibiotics you’ve hugely increased the quantity of nasty bugs inside your body. What can be done about it? Stop using antibiotics on farms, for one thing, but after that treat humans with bacteriophages, specific viruses that target harmful bacteria. The idea of designer phages goes back to the 1930s but people in the West lost interest when antibiotics became available. The Soviets were skeptical about the long-term effectiveness of antibiotics and the shotgun approach so they kept advancing the state of the art, but that work stalled with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Polz’s Lab does stuff that looks a lot like biology.

Take-away: (1) “Bridges and sewers” per se still don’t excite people in academia, but the department has reinvented itself; (2) it never hurts to add biology to any research project!


  1. SuperMike

    October 23, 2015 @ 2:16 pm


    I’m worried that civil engineering might become a lost art. When I’m in Downtown Los Angeles, I like to wander around and look at all the concrete. It’s truly a masterpiece, and it’s clear that we can’t really do it anymore. Look at all the lanes, all the curves!

  2. J. Peterson

    October 23, 2015 @ 4:24 pm


    The building I work in has had cameras, microphones, etc. built into many of the conference rooms for several years now. No need to set up tripods, and some do a reasonable job of automatically moving the camera to point at the current speaker.

    The average delay incurred at the start of a meeting to get it working has dropped from ten minutes to four or five over the past few years.

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