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Observational method pioneer Ralph Peck dies

US soil mechanics pioneer Ralph B Peck, who invented the 'Observational Method' widely used in geotechnical engineering projects, has died aged 95.

Peck's famous 1969 Rankin Lecture championed the "Observational Method" under which complex ground engineering projects were "designed optimistically" but with the capability of "fall back positions".

The process uses intensive monitoring to help grade the excaration and work with the observed ground conditions as they are met.

The technique has become commonly used for tunnelling and earth support systems, said Imperial College emeritus professor John Burland.
"He was concerned about the over use of computer programmes and numerical analysis techniques at the expense of experience and judgement and taking account of the geology and variability of the ground," said Burland.

"He upset a lot of people because of that."

Peck taught in the civil engineering department at the University of Illinois between 1942 and 1974, forging a reputation as a "brilliant educator who brought practice into the classroom".

"He wouldn't let his students out of the lecture theatre until they had put on one piece of paper an analysis of the problem and the way it should be tackled," added Burland.

"It was a terrific discipline."

Peck himself famously said: "If you can't reduce a difficult engineering problem to just one sheet of paper, you will probably never understand it."

Peck was a consultant on more than 1,000 projects including the Chicago subway system and as recently as 2005 the Rion-Antiron Bridge in Greece. His 1948 book Soil Mechanics in Engineering Practice (co-authored with Karl Terzaghi) is still an industry bible.

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