ENGINEERING - turning knowledge into useful products, services, and structures - is one of humanity's great skills. We've been developing it for thousands of years. Yet, as Robert M. White, president of the (United States) National Academy of Engineering, observes, the past quarter century has ``witnessed more advancement in technology and, consequently, greater changes in the lives of people than any previous 25-year period in recorded history.''
To celebrate its own 25th birthday, Dec. 5, the academy has issued a brochure describing what it considers the top 10 engineering accomplishments of this seminal era. The conclusions are thought-provoking.
This is no casual listing such as you might work up in after-dinner conversation. Academy members and engineering societies submitted 340 entries for this technological hit parade. The 10 the academy council picked are just the tip of a pyramid of achievement that really has changed our lives. Here, briefly, are the choices:
Moon landing: This heads the list because it ranks with the Egyptian pyramids or the Panama Canal ``as one of the most complex and significant achievements of all time.''
Application satellites: We take weather, communications, and ground-scanning resource satellites for granted now. But they have transformed our view of the planet.
Microprocessors: The chips that run watches and ``smart'' appliances and make possible the computer-managed ``information revolution'' are another marvel that has quickly become commonplace.
Computer-aided design and manufacturing: It's the new stage in the industrial revolution.
CAT scan: A marriage of X-ray scanning and computer imaging that removes the need for exploratory surgery in many medical diagnoses.
Advanced composite materials: These are the stronger, lighter-weight materials that have transformed tennis rackets and golf clubs and now find wide use in many products, including aircraft and spacecraft.
The jumbo jet: This sophisticated workhorse aircraft - not the once-hyped supersonic transport - has cut costs and increased air travel dramatically.
Lasers: They now find use in such applications as CD players and office printers as well as in research, communications, and some medical and manufacturing operations.
Fiber optics: The glass cables that carry laser light handle many times the information at lower cost than do the old copper wires are revolutionizing communications.
Genetic engineering: This portentous technology has only begun to find applications.
It's an impressive list. Perhaps its most awesome implication is to illustrate the fact that our engineering prowess is changing our world profoundly, in ways and with a speed that we scarcely grasp.
And those changes are by no means always benign. As Dr. White notes, ``some engineering achievements are often viewed as sources of environmental degradation.''
It's worth considering something the academy doesn't mention - once-promising technologies that have lost their luster during the past quarter century. For example, issues of radioactive waste disposal and safety have put the future of nuclear power in question. Pesticides and other farm chemicals developed to boost food supplies now are serious pollutants. The chloroflorocarbon (CFC) ``wonder'' chemicals that brought cheap refrigeration threaten the ozone layer. And the cars that provide unprecedented mobility degrade the air we breath.
White rightly points out that ``the engineering achievements of the future are limited only by the laws of nature and our own imagination.'' But if those achievements are to be a boon and not a bane, they must be planned and implemented with far more foresight than has been exercised to date. Helping engineers - and the rest of us - to gain this wisdom may be the biggest challenge the National Academy of Engineering will face during its next 25 years.