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Book review and competition

Ralph B. Peck, Educator and Engineer - The Essence of the Man

This book is more than a biography - it is an informal celebration of Ralph Peck's life: his childhood, education and family background, his professional experiences, his approach to engineering education, and above all his warm and generous relations with family, colleagues and friends.

The book is divided into parts including self-portrait, words of wisdom and selected publications and lectures.

Self-portrait is assembled from tape recordings and dictations to his daughter, Nancy. Peck tells his life story in a characteristically informal, generous and humorous way. Included is an essay written when he was 18 entitled: 'Why I prefer to be an engineer.' In it, he expresses the satisfaction engineering offers as a career, its creativity, huge contributions to quality of life, the practical application of the scientic method and the challenges that engineering offers in team building and leadership.

Tucked away in the essay is the observation that the intense technical nature of an engineering education can lead to a deciency in an engineer's social, spiritual and cultural life and an inability to communicate effectively. Therefore a deliberate effort to broaden one's interests and to read widely is needed - advice which he has evidently followed.

In it, Peck also expressed his desire to become a bridge engineer. In fact his first job was with a bridge company but he was laid off during the recession that followed the Great Depression. He wrote to Arthur Casagrande at Harvard and was accepted the following year for a course in the new subject of soil mechanics. Shortly after arriving, he received a letter from a premier bridge engineering firm offering him a position. In his own words: 'Had the letter come about two days earlier, I would probably never have attended the course in soil mechanics, and most likely would have had a career in bridge engineering as I had intended to do from the beginning.'

Words of wisdom will appeal to engineering practitioners and includes the following observations from Peck:

· if you can't reduce a difcult engineering problem to just one 8.5' x 11' sheet of paper, you will probably never understand it · unfortunately, with the present trend many students are led to believe that theory and laboratory testing constitute the whole of soil mechanics · simple calculations based on a range of variables are better than elaborate ones based on limited input · nobody can be a good designer, a good researcher, a leader in the civil engineering profession unless he or she understands the methods and problems of the builder · theory and calculations are not a substitute for judgment, but are the basis for sounder judgement.

Many articles in selected publications and lectures appeared in US conferences and specialist publications, and will not have been widely read outside the country.

Peck's views on the relationship between engineering and the environment are particularly interesting. He stresses the positive role that engineering has played in improving quality of life and conservation. He takes the long view that a geological perspective brings and stresses that we have to learn to adapt to change. Peck is prepared to be controversial - he challenges some of the statements made by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and has little time for excessive use of stability analysis in assessing earth dam safety. He expresses dismay at the misuse of the observational method - one that he himself developed.

The latter section of the book contains tributes to great geotechnical engineers, including Arthur Casagrande, Laurits Bjerrum and Professor Sir Alec Skempton. Peck brings a personal touch to each because of his friendships with them. The book also includes a number of short personal vignettes from a variety of people - mainly engineers - who have studied under him or worked with him. The reections of friends and family, such as Gudrun Bjerrum, Eric Terzaghi and Allen Young, reveal delightful aspects of Peck's private life and character, while Nancy gives us a revealing account of what life is like when one's dad is being sued for $1.5M (£750,000).

The title of this book is most apt, as Peck is indeed an educator and an engineer. Those who teach geotechnics and practice it as engineers will gain the most from reading it. Not only does it capture the essence of the man but also the essence of the subject.

John Burland is emeritus professor and senior research fellow in soil mechanics at Imperial College London

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