Risk and safety of structures

Risk is defined by two parameters: the idea of uncertain outcome and the idea of loss. Everybody, sooner or later, will be confronted with some manifestation of risk. While some individuals seek it for thrills or perceived gains, others try to avoid it. The notion of risk continues to challenge human minds as in the ancient times of the Greeks when natural events were attributed to fate and the work of gods, for the concepts of risk and uncertainty were not yet examined or understood. Risk is part of every human endeavor and in the last hundred years, society has made extraordinary strides in identifying and quantifying it. Peter Bernstein correctly argues in his book Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk that modern civilization is mainly distinguished by the ability to control and manipulate risk, which catalyzes economic development and technological progress. Modern Structures has provided me with valuable insight concerning the application of risk to the profession of engineering. More importantly, it has exemplified the important social and professional responsibilities of engineers when dealing with risk.

The views of Peter Bernstein are made explicitly clear in his novel Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk. By describing the rite of passage that Western civilization has embarked on to enter the modern era, Bernstein successfully conveys his two main arguments. First, he asserts that modern civilization is mainly characterized by the mastery of risk. There is both statistical and anecdotal evidence to support Bernstein's argument when examining the nature of manmade and natural disasters. While the possibility of a natural disaster is out of our control, we do have control over the extent to which we manage the risks caused by such events. For example, while we cannot control whether an earthquake will occur or not, we can reduce the repercussions of a disaster by designing and remodeling buildings and bridges into earthquake resistant ones. Second, Bernstein argues that the ability to control risk has resulted in a plethora of positive externalities such as technological progress and economic development. Currently, there are a number of options for generating energy, of which nuclear power generation is one of the most promising. Though there is a possibility of nuclear meltdown and a situation very similar to the disastrous Chernobyl, the probabilistic estimates of such a possibility is low. By effectively harnessing risk, society will be able to derive not only economic benefits but also environmental benefits.

Modern Structures has provided me with valuable insight on risk and safety, especially in topics of probabilistic estimates of failure and extreme events. I learned that numbers were deceiving and one needed the context to understand the true meaning behind the number. While the probability of occurrence may be low, the consequences of failure can be high. This is especially true in William J. LeMessurier's Citicorp building. Although the chances that a storm strong enough to tear the building apart was merely "once in every fifty years", such an event would result in the catastrophic failure of the entire building. Learning about safety factors and the area of risk under the curve also provided another level of understanding concerning failure. It was especially interesting to learn that risk could never be zero and extraordinary events could significantly change the stability and safety of the building.

Throughout the class Professor Anthony Ingraffea often mentioned the responsibility of an engineer. From him, I learned two main principles concerning the social and professional responsibility of engineers. First, as engineers we should not impose our moral views on society; instead, we should allow society to determine what projects are undertaken. The problem solver should not factor in his personal preferences into the equation. Second, engineers must refuse to work on projects that present threats or risks, as they have an obligation to the safety and wellbeing of society. The most important social responsibility of engineers is to refuse work on illegal or detrimental projects, and to do otherwise is to impose their personal values on the rest of the world. There is an important ethical role in the profession of engineering. An example of what happens when the ethical role of engineers is undermined is the case of the Ford Pinto. A design flaw in the original car meant that the manufacturers were faced with a choice between undertaking changes to the design or exposing customers to the risk of the vehicle. In order to make the decision, the company did a simply cost-benefit analysisthey compared the cost of re-design and found it outweighed the cost of compensation.

Risk is a phenomenon that is controlled and mastered. Peter Bernstein correctly argues in his novel Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk that the mastery of risk is what defines modern civilization and differentiates it from the past. Furthermore, Bernstein asserts that

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