BackscatterIEEE-USA InFocus

New eBook: The Best of Backscatter, Book 5, Offers Thoughts and Recollections on Things Engineering

By Helen Horwitz

What could be better than reading one of Donald Christiansen’s Backscatter columns in IEEE-USA InSight? How about having the opportunity to read 16 of these thought-provoking and well-researched essays, by the respected former editor and publisher of IEEE Spectrum?

Christiansen, who is an IEEE Fellow, has been contributing Backscatter to IEEE-USA publications for some years. Each of the periodic anthologies of his columns is always a good reason for engineers–and anyone else interested in technology–to be pleased. Now, with the publication of The Best of Backscatter, Book 5, the latest compilation of his online essays, Christiansen’s fans have ample cause to celebrate.

As with the four previous anthologies, the author has organized the columns in Book 5 around specific topics. This time, they are related to design issues, engineering writing and communicating, historical recollections, and the engineering gender gap. Moreover, he approaches each column with the same thoughtful and pragmatic style that has made Backscatter so popular over the years. Christiansen was a practicing engineer before he moved on to IEEE Spectrum, and he applies the best of the engineering mindset–analytical, logical and detail-oriented–to his writing.

In the essay titled Quack, Quack?, he considers both the advantages and shortcomings of simulation as a tool in design and teaching. He begins by riffing on the classic quotation, “If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it must be a duck.” Next, he quickly points out that what was very likely true in the past no longer is necessarily accurate; in today’s world of virtual reality, what is “real” can easily be misrepresented.

“Today’s sophisticated simulation techniques can emulate reality in such extreme detail as to sometimes seem more “real’ than that encountered in nature,” he writes. “Such a “hyper-real’ simulated design might not work in practice. Architectural critics have noted that some buildings conceived in this way should not have been built.”

Christiansen adds that in many university laboratories, hands-on experiments have given way to simulated experiments. “Not all physics professors are as enamored of simulated demonstrations,” he observes, “feeling that the very notion of physics demands direct experience with physical things, including the intimate knowledge of laboratory equipment and instruments.”


What Christiansen believes is the dangerous practice of accepting minor faults in large, complex systems is the topic of The “Inconceivable” Consequences of Failure. In this essay, he discusses the dangerous risk of ignoring the anticipated low probability of system failure, thus de-emphasizing the consequences of a failure should it occur–and what to do afterwards.

As an example, he points to the April, 2010 BP/Transocean Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster. He writes that while the shortcomings of the blind shear ram–part of the prevention system that failed, causing the disaster–were well-known to the oil drilling industry, the Deepwater Horizon was not equipped with a second, redundant shear ram–despite previous recommendations.

“It appears that not only managers but engineers, too, are lulled by a series of low-profile failures, especially if they don’t impose serious financial penalties,” Christiansen concludes. “They may then give insufficient attention to known failure mechanisms and, with time, discount the possibility of a major failure, and so be unprepared when it happens.”

For a change of pace, the essay Not My Type reveals Christiansen’s annoyance with today’s publication designers’ use of type sizes and colors in ways that he thinks hinder readability. “What is troubling to many veteran publication editors and designers is that today’s publishers do not necessarily seek and adhere to designs that favor the reader, but toy with experimental designs that are fun to create but may well inhibit the retrieval of worthy information,” he writes.

He singles out the 20 April 2012 issue of Time devoted to “The 100 Most Influential People in the World,” and severely criticizes much of the text–designed in pastel hues”¦ Or that was reversed or “dropped out” of a black or photographic background to simulate white type?

He also reveals the results after he and a publishing design colleague scored technical periodicals commonly read by engineers and other technical professionals. But to learn how MIT’s Technology Review, Science, Scientific American, and other publications fared, fans of Donald Christiansen will have to read The Best of Backscatter, Book 5.


It is available for $4.79 for IEEE members and $5.99 for non-members at

Helen Horwitz is an award-winning freelance writer who lives in Albuquerque, N.M. She was with IEEE from 1991 through 2011, the first nine as Staff Director, IEEE Corporate Communications.

Helen Horwitz

Helen Horwitz was an award-winning freelance writer in Albuquerque, N.M. She was with IEEE from 1991 through 2011, the first nine as Staff Director, IEEE Corporate Communications.

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