An engineer shows the ‘nothing in particular’ that our world relies on

BOSTON – Most tourists who come here hope to visit various historical sites: the Boston Tea Party Museum, the Old South Meeting House. But when you tour with engineer Deb Chachra, you skip all that. Instead, on a walk around the dock earlier this fall, he pointed out what was underneath: a steel plaque emblazoned with the image of a flounder, to prevent dumping in storm drains.

“But the thing that I really love,” says Chachra, speaking at a fast, enthusiastic clip, “is, the next time you’re in Cambridge, look at what’s in Cambridge – because those who -flowing in the Charles River there are different fish than those flowing into the Alewife.”

Chachra’s new book, “How Infrastructure Works,” makes you more alive to this kind of detail — the small ways that man-made systems perform their functions. All these specific fish remind us that we are connected to a larger system – in this case, the flow of water – and that we can change our environment.

With the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency, and the construction and upgrade of the Deer Island Wastewater Plant, he noted, the harbor is cleaner and more flounder-filled than it was decades ago – so we see a man who hot pink swimming trunks doing backflips on the bridge.

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Our infrastructure networks, Chachra writes, “have a combination of ubiquity and banality” that renders them useless in our eyes.

But in the face of the climate crisis wreaking havoc on our planet – and the built systems we rely on, from energy to transport – Chachra wants us to see our infrastructure clearly: not just an engineering marvel. , but as reflected in our social values. After all, this is not physics, but human relations, which determine the answers to questions such as: Who has access to light? On the internet? And who is forced to bear the burdens of pollution and displacement?

“I don’t have anything in particular to show you,” he announced cheerfully, as we meandered back downtown, then stopped in front of an office, identical to all the ones next to it. “Totally nondescript building,” he said, seemingly satisfied. “But it’s actually a data center — a major network hub for the region.”

We often only notice infrastructure when it fails, either inconveniently (like when your train is late), or catastrophically (like the Texas power crisis of 2021).

Or else, we notice if it takes the form of a “charismatic megastructure,” like a bridge or a dam – the built environment equivalent of a blue whale or a panda. Chachra grew up near a structure in Canada: The Pickering Nuclear Generating Station can be seen from where she and her siblings played on the shores of Lake Ontario. Some people may think that the power plant spoils the view; for Chachra, this is the view.

In some ways, Chachra jokes, he is the opposite of the cliché about the rebellious children of immigrant engineers. Chachra’s family is from India, and in the book, he describes the infrastructure “culture shock” he experienced during long visits there, when he learned to expect regular brownouts and having running water just inside. for a few hours every day.

At age 19, having skipped a few grades, Chachra was doing graduate-level coursework in physics. Then “I kind of crashed and burned a bunch my senior year, and ended up failing most of my courses.” The upside: His schedule now has room for a biomaterials course he’s eyeing. This set him on his way to graduate studies in materials science, with research interests spanning human bone tissue and plastic-producing bees.

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Chachra, now a professor at the Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts, says materials science is “so fun to teach” because it explains the way the world works on a relatable scale. . “Everyone interacts with materials throughout their lives, and we know a tremendous amount about how materials behave” — and his class gives students a framework to help them understand the everything.

This shows what he hopes to achieve in his book: “We all have this deep, direct experience of infrastructure, and we are used to understanding it at one scale: the scale of our bodies.” Every day we come into contact with these systems simply by turning on the faucet or backing out of our driveway. But what can we learn by zooming out to get a social point of view?

He plans all kinds of trips for his research: a town in Alaska that runs entirely on hydroelectric power; Communities in Puerto Rico were left without power long after Hurricane Maria. The coronavirus pandemic shut that down, but “being in my apartment for 18 months really clarified some things.”

In video calls with his nephews, he ranted about how he lives with his cats on the space station “and, every now and then, I put on my spacesuit and go to the grocery store to get supplies Spaceship Deb.”

Almost all of his basic needs are met by the systems built into his building: telecommunications, electricity, water, heat. He is the beneficiary of a lot of infrastructure built through collective investment – a network that excludes others, especially the homeless. “I realized that I wanted to have a universal basic infrastructure,” he said. “Everyone should have access to the systems.”

However, the book never feels claustrophobic. It’s fun to hear Chachra think out loud, which on the internet has also become a habit to think out loud with friends. Some of it happened on social media, but a lot of it was brewed in inboxes, as writers including Chachra, Jay Owens and Charlie Loyd played off each other’s reflections on science and culture in their newsletters. (Chachra’s writing covers topics from calico cat genetics to American cheese to why she’s worn almost exclusively black since she was a teenager.)

Some of these friends also appear in the book: They drive with him to see parts of the California water system; they took him to Snowdonia National Park in Wales, which has a power station that can handle the peak demand caused by an entire country plugging in its electric kettles after a TV show finish.

When you consider the many intersecting systems that enable you to do something as simple as making your daily cup of coffee, it can feel overwhelming and strangely powerless. All these resources, all this labor and creativity, are poured into creating the systems that make life as we know it possible – and they also dump so much carbon into the atmosphere that life as we know it becomes will end soon.

Chachra’s students often struggle with how to imagine their future in what they consider a broken Earth. It’s hard to be optimistic, he says, when you feel that your two options are to accept the world as it is, or to spend your life in sacrifice and struggle in the hope of avoiding disaster: “That’s not very fun.”

He tries to help them shift to a different mind-set: We live on the cusp of total social change and can build a more abundant, more equal future. The truth is, he should have written a very different book 50 years ago.

Today, removing energy consumption from carbon emissions is no longer an impossible engineering problem, he writes, and “like swords beating plowshares, we can imagine changing all that artifacts of a fossil fuel-driven culture necessary for a sustainable world. .”

Perhaps, Chachra suggests, we should live like the early days of what the novelist William Gibson called the “jackpot” – a multi-factor statement – but also, every writer Alasdair Gray, like the first days of a better civilization. What does that have to do with it? “Well,” he said, smiling, “like everyone else, I think I’m trying to figure that out.”

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