Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Power of a lion

Karl von Terzaghi, an Austrian civil engineer and geologist, sometimes called ‘the father of soil mechanics’, was born 130 years ago today. His colourful life, some of which was spent in the US, included a long-running scientific duel which had a tragic end, employing Sylvia Plath’s mother as his secretary, and engaging with Hitler on the best way to lay building foundations. Although his diaries, held in Oslo and Essen, have not been published, they were used extensively by Reint de Boer in his biographical work The Engineer and the Scandal: A Piece of Science History.

Karl von Terzaghi was born on 2 October 1883, the first child of a soldier and his wife in Prague. On his father’s retirement, the family moved to Graz, but Karl was sent to military boarding schools where he developed an interest in astronomy and geography, and excelled at mathematics. In 1900, he started studying mechanical engineering at the Technical University in Graz, graduating in 1904. A year of military service followed, during which time he translated a popular English geology field manual into German, and undertook further studies in geology.

Terzaghi went to work for a firm involved in hydroelectric power generation, and, by 1908, was managing construction sites; he successfully completed complex projects in Croatia and Russia. In 1912, he went on an extended tour in the US, visiting major dam construction sites. On returning to Austria he was drafted into the army to lead an engineering battalion. Before the war’s end, he took up a professorship at the Royal Ottoman College of Engineering in Istanbul where he began his groundbreaking research into the behaviour of soils.

By 1924, working at Robert College, also in Istanbul, his work was receiving much attention, and he accepted a job at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Here he set up his own laboratory, and published widely, not least in popular magazines such as Engineering News Record. During this period, he employed Aurelia Schober Plath (later to become the mother of the poet Sylvia Plath) as his secretary. It appears, Terzaghi was a much sought-after dinner companion, not only because of his scintillating conversation but because of his charisma too. In 1928 he met a young geology student, Ruth Dogget, and soon married her.

By 1929, Terzaghi was back in Vienna, having accepted a newly created chair of soil mechanics at Vienna Technical University. He travelled a lot through Europe, lecturing and consulting. During a sabbatical (1936-1937) he became involved in a Nazi building project in Nuremberg, and a conflict over the best way to lay a sound foundation led to a discussion with Hitler; he also undertook a lecture tour in the US. On returning to Vienna, just after the birth of his first son Eric, a long-running dispute (originating in different views over the so-called uplift problem) with another Austrian scientist, Paul Fillunger, came to the boil and ended with Fillunger’s suicide.

Terzaghi moved to the US in 1938, serving as professor of civil engineering at Harvard University from 1946 until his retirement. His consulting business continued to expand, and included the chairmanship of the Board of Consultants of Egypt’s Aswan High Dam project until 1959. He died in 1963. Wikipedia has a little more information; otherwise try Googlebooks for Richard Goodman’s biography: Karl Terzaghi: The Engineer as Artist.

Terzaghi left behind an extensive set of diaries, though, as far as I know, these have not been published. However, Reint de Boer used them extensively in writing his book, The Engineer and the Scandal: A Piece of Science History, published by Springer, 2005. This book might provide a piece of science history, but it’s not a great piece of science writing. The prologue begins as follows: ‘This book gives one an indepth study into an important part of the development of the Theory of Porous Media’ - hmmm, sounds a bit dull so far - ‘as well as the amazing story of the glittering life of Professor Karl von Terzaghi.’ The scandal in the title refers to the dispute with Fillunger.

Further along in the prologue, de Boer explains: ‘[Terzaghi] left behind an extensive record of his life in diaries, manuscripts, books, pamphlets, statements, notes etc. In particular, his diaries contain a lot of facts about his life, individuals, who accompanied him, and his surroundings. However, von Terzaghi was a vain person and belonged to that group of people who work their whole lifetime on their own memorial. In his diaries he sometimes described important events in his life not on the day on which they occurred, but a long time later, and he glossed over many facts. Thus, one has to be careful in adopting his view on facts and his description of certain occurrences uncritically. [. . .]. von Terzaghi kept not only the extended diaries, discovered at his home in 1995/97, which are the basis for this treatise, but also an incomplete set of diaries with short entries which have already been known for a longer time [. . .]’

Much of The Engineer and the Scandal can be previewed at Googlebooks. Here are a few short extracts quoted within the narrative of the book.

6 September 1902
‘I have happily finished my treatise “On the Intellect”. It is the first time that I have taken up the pen. That should be the beginning and the introduction to a series of larger and smaller papers which I will attack soon.’

September 1902
‘I feel the power of a lion in me, since I have broken the heavy ban which encircled me for years. I know now only one goal: extreme particular education in natural sciences, a body like steel and iron and then to the farthest south.’

September 1902
‘I have heavily sinned by my failed efforts, by nearly outrageous meditations, although not responsible, and I am punished severely by disorder and unsteadiness. I will regain all this by the greatest strictness against myself and systematic working.’

October 1902
‘I must learn to give talks, the skill to have an effect on other persons by means of language in order to convince them with that, which I have recognized as the truth. Truth? No, I have to convince them from that, which I have inspected as right and desirable. I stand here, isolated, and will represent my opinion as the present right one, will myself as the center and not as a follower. My work will be to a great extent independent. . .’

31 December 1902
‘Too many intentions, too little energy. Great phrases, small thoughts. Innumerable books, lack of concentration. The year which I end today, is as each of the proceeding [sic] years, distracted. I spent a part of my time with wandering about in the dark instead of with systematic work . . . However, I must admit that I made quite an imposing piece of progress this year. I have founded my philosophy of life recently through the realization of the moral law in us. I have won by this a measure of regulation and opinion in my way of acting.’

23 October 1903
‘Now I have determined plans for the future. I will abandon all dreams of my youth and choose a profession in which I can work most fruitfully. I would like to graduate from the Technische Hochschule as well as possible in order to enlarge as ever possible, the chance to get a professorship for mechancs.’

October 1912
‘It is just the calling of my life to develop all the skills which I possess as completely as possible. I have a certain hesitation going back to Europe, even for a short time. Europe is the land of the sins of my youth. There I developed, alongside many good things, all the bad seeds in my nature.’

2 October 1922
‘I must thank the Creator that I pass the threshold of the 40th year of my life as a mature man who has made his talents unfold and has already realized to a large extent the goals, of which he dreamed in his youth. In this summer I had the feeling of being on top of life. My achievements are beginning to receive the recognition and attention which they deserve. The publications of the total results of my previous research and thinking ensured. And the unnatural relationship with my wife cleared up. On September 14, I arrived in Constantinople. There following two weeks appeared to me like one year as a result of the variety of events. The old love to Olga struggled with the indignation at her behaviour and the indignation succeeded.’

22 October 1922
‘I have thought of you [Olga] daily, this year, of the women I have loved so much, and of our small child, Verele.’ Here de Boer explains: ‘He lamented his previous and then-current situation in over eight pages of his diary and expressed several muddled thoughts and strange statements indicating that he was completely out of balance.’

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