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The Teaching Company

Awed by the Science of Great Structures

The Teaching Company continues to turn out lots of interesting new courses. Recently I watched Understanding the World’s Greatest Structures taught by Stephen Ressler, and I thought it was fascinating.

The topic has fascinated me my whole life. As a kid in 4th grade, I remember trying to draw different bridges and wondering when I would be taught enough to understand their designs. I dreamed of coming up with a better way of designing bridges to use less material.

Seattle has a number of interesting bridges, but the one that fascinated me most was the Interstate 5 bridge crossing over Lake Union. I wondered whether the designers could be really sure it wouldn’t fall down. I asked teachers to explain structures, but they didn’t know about them. I eventually realized it would be a long time before I was taught enough math, physics and engineering to understand structures.

During my travels, I have had the chance to see amazing structures. Some are bridges like the Roman aqueduct Pont Du Gard in Southern France. Some are domes like the Pantheon in Rome or the Hagia Sophia church in Istanbul. Some are skyscrapers like the Empire State Building in New York City or the Burj Khalifa (now the tallest in the world) in Dubai. All this time, I have wanted to know how the engineers design these buildings to deal with wind and earthquakes, and what new innovations might be coming along.

Professor Stephen Ressler does a great job explaining the basic elements of structures in 24 lectures of 30 minutes each. After the introductory lecture, he uses the next eight to explain the key elements of structure—cables, beams, columns, arches and trusses. The examples and demonstrations are amazingly good. He keeps things interesting at every step.

The rest of the course covers the history of different types of structures. You learn about bridges that collapsed, like the Tacoma Narrows bridge in Washington State, and how engineers have learned from mistakes. The world has many more amazing and beautiful structures than I appreciated. Ressler shows dozens of bridges and buildings that use novel structural approaches, which are quite amazing.

I loved this course. Ressler’s enthusiasm for the topic comes through in every lecture. He is a great example of the incredible teachers the Teaching Company has found for many of its courses. It’s possible that the audience for this course isn’t large – perhaps not many other people have thought about why buildings don’t fall down. But it you are at all tempted, I encourage you to watch it.

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