Monumental And Invisible: How Infrastructure Works

Hand turning wall light switch off. color image in horizontal orientation
Your lights work because of functioning infrastructure. Credit: Shutterstock

Perhaps you’ve marveled at the engineering feats of the Golden Gate Bridge or the Hoover Dam. Maybe you’ve thought about how many train tracks run in and out of Grand Central Station. 

But it’s sometimes easy to forget just how important well-functioning infrastructure is in our day-to-day lives. Flip a light switch, and the light comes on. Wash a load of laundry and your clothes come out clean and fresh. Order pretty much anything on Amazon and it arrives two days later. 

It can be kind of boring. And that’s the good news. We like our infrastructure to be boring—that means it’s running well. 

Ira talks with Dr. Deb Chachra, author of the new book How Infrastructure Works: Inside the Systems that Shape Our World and professor of engineering at the Olin College of Engineering, about the role of infrastructure in our lives.

Read an excerpt of How Infrastructure Works: Inside the Systems that Shape Our World.

Segment Guests

Deb Chachra

Dr. Deb Chachra is the author of How Infrastructure Works: Inside the Systems That Shape Our World, and a professor of Engineering at the Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Massachusetts.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: I like to look at how stuff is built all around me, all this stuff– the bridges, the buildings, stuff. I stop and stare at them. I like to look at all kinds of stuff under construction. And this kind of stopping and starting, it can drive people with me pretty nutty. What are you stopping for? They just don’t get it.

There’s fascinating infrastructure all around us. But you know what? It’s sometimes easy to forget just how critical well-functioning infrastructure is to our day-to-day lives. For example, you flip a switch, the light comes on. You run a load of laundry, and your clothes come out clean and fresh. Order pretty much anything on Amazon, and it arrives, what, two days later.

Kind of boring, right? And that’s the good news. We like our infrastructure to be boring. That means it’s running well.

My next guest has thought a lot about the role of infrastructure in our lives, both big and small, and how we’re going to have to adjust our embedded infrastructure to climate change. Let me introduce her, Dr Deb– excuse me– Dr. Deb Chachra, author of How Infrastructure Works– Inside the Systems That Shape Our World and professor of Engineering at the Olin College of Engineering based in Needham, Massachusetts. Welcome to Science Friday.

DEB CHACHRA: Thank you. I’m so happy to be here.

IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you. I want to let our listeners in on our secret. If they have some infrastructure they want to ask about or brag about or tell us there’s something wrong about it– a bridge, a building, water systems– or maybe there’s an infrastructure that most needs to be made. What do you think? One that’s worn out, needs attention, maybe you need something built from scratch. Give us a call, 844-724-8255, 844-SCITALK, or tweet us @SciFri. Deb, do you walk around like I do and marvel at the infrastructure you see?

DEB CHACHRA: I do. I have my entire life. And you actually hit on something really interesting, which is that these systems are simultaneously in our field of view at every moment of the day, and we tend not to think about them or even see them. And those two things are simultaneously true.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, that is true. Tell us why you decided to write this book now. I mean, what is it about our current moment that makes thinking about our infrastructure so critical?

DEB CHACHRA: So the idea of the book came because for about the last 10 years or so, I have been convincing my friends, and my friends have been convincing me to go and look at various pieces of infrastructure, including reservoirs and dams and the like. And I realized that when I did this, two things came to mind. So one is that every system, no matter how cool it seemed from an engineering point of view, I realized that there was some kind of inequity baked into it. So if it’s a city, it’s where it gets its water from. If it’s a power plant, it’s where are the power plant is situated or what the pollution is. So that was one side of it.

The other side of it is that I realized that we think of these as engineering systems, but also, we understand that they’re deeply social and political. So this is why we’re so– we think about Flint, or we think about Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. So we’re really aware of these two sides. And what I realized was that given my background as an engineering professor, I really saw them as– the energy and the matter, the very basic science of them as inextricably related to how they functioned on a social or political or even economic way. So that was the impetus for how infrastructure works, right, how to put it together.

And then the immediate impetus or the thing that I really dialed in while I was writing the book is you know the line about the best time to write– or, sorry, the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, and the next best time is today. So for a long, long time, I thought, the best time to I’ve written this book was 20 years ago, and the next best time was today, because 20 years ago, we are now seeing the real impacts of climate change. We’re on this increasing exponential curve. And it was like, oh, I wish I had put this together a while back.

IRA FLATOW: But no one wanted to listen 20 years ago. We’ve been talking about it on this show forever.

DEB CHACHRA: Right, and so first of all–

IRA FLATOW: And it wasn’t the right time.

DEB CHACHRA: –broadly, we all appreciate what the issue is now right. If you open, if you go to the home page of any major newspaper, I guarantee you there will be a few stories that, like it or not, relate to climate change and infrastructure. But the other thing that’s really changed is that in the last 10 or 15 years, the technologies for renewable energy have really matured to the point where we can now see this pathway to a renewable future. And so had I written this book 20 years ago, those would have been in the future still.

And it’s like, here’s the thing. It’s like, we need to transform these systems. We need to decarbonize them. At some point in the future, it will be possible to do this.

And right it today, in the book coming out today, it lands in a very different place because now I get to say, we need to transform these systems. Most of the energy we use and, therefore, most of the carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas emissions we produce is used through these collective systems. We need to transform them because they are both how we contribute to climate change, but also they are deeply affected by anthropogenic climate change. And, and we now have the technology to see how that would be possible. So it’s a very, very different position to be in than if I’d written it 20 years ago, even 10 years ago.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, and you talk about lots of different things in the book, but actually, the idea that infrastructures work with each other, lots of different infrastructures, and there’s a need to cooperate among them, right?

DEB CHACHRA: Yeah. The fundamental reality of all of these systems is that– and this is one of the ways in which they’re technological as well as social– is that they function because we, one, take them for granted. We just, if we start something, we know– if you bring a washing machine home, you know you’re going to be able to plug it in. You know you’re going to have water. You know you’re going to have a drain for sewage. Modern washing machines might even be connected to the internet, right, that all of these systems just kind of exist, and you can take them for granted.

And that’s made possible because we have this agreement that when we build a house it will have, in the US, 120-volt power. It will have this type of connector for water and sewage. So one is that cooperation that is the standards that just make systems work as a whole.

And that cooperation, of course, it’s not just at the household level. It extends really at the global level, this idea of organizations around how are we going to do things, the sort of standards, but really practices, right, ways of doing things. And those are social agreements as much as technological agreements. So that’s one of the ways in which these systems are inextricably both technological and social and political.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about one system that we love to talk about on the program. You talk about tracing water, water that comes into our tap, all the way– you trace it all the way back to its source and then where it goes when you’re done with it, right? What did you learn when doing this exercise?

DEB CHACHRA: So one of the things is that– well, so OK, first of all, I should point out that I live in the Northeast, where it rains a lot.

IRA FLATOW: Lots of water.

DEB CHACHRA: So water here is very different than water in the West. And that’s the thing that I knew before I started thinking about it more deeply. But now I really, really understand what that difference is.

So living in the Northeast, living in a place like Boston or New York, our water comes from pretty nearby. It comes from surface reservoirs. And almost all of it is delivered by gravity to our houses. And then there’s like a network. I think of it as an artificial network of rivers and streams on top of or actually. I guess. Underneath our cities, right, that instead of having just a stream and creeks and rivulets that deliver it, now it’s actually aqueducts and pipes that deliver it to our homes. And then the same thing in mirror image is what collects all the sewage and takes it to a sewage treatment plant and takes it out.

And so one of the things that I thought was really surprising is I hadn’t realized how much of it was just delivered by gravity alone. And it kind of makes sense because these systems in places like Boston and New York were built out in the 19th century. And they were built because gravity did most of the work for you, right? If you built the dam, and you built the reservoir, and you built the aqueduct, then gravity would happily deliver.

IRA FLATOW: Build it a little higher. Let it go downhill.

DEB CHACHRA: Yeah, that’s right. Yeah, so it’s almost always uphill. So in New York, it’s up the Hudson Valley. In San Francisco, it’s in the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. It’s typically up.

And, in fact, actually, I live in Boston. So my sewage treatment plant is at sea level. It’s on an island or I guess now no longer an island on the harbor, right? So you take advantage of letting gravity do the work for you. That is–

IRA FLATOW: Let me just remind everybody quickly, this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios talking with Dr. Deb Chachra, author of How Infrastructure Works. Finish telling us how your infrastructure was working there.

DEB CHACHRA: So that’s how it works in a place like on the East Coast. But, of course, on the West Coast, in California and the Western states, it takes a huge amount of energy to move the water around. And some of that water, some of that energy is generated by the water itself. The water goes across many, many states. It’s aqueducts that are hundreds of miles long.

So it’s a very different world in terms of how it was built and the kind of energy that’s used. And that turns out to be a key piece of how we think about infrastructure, which is how do they use energy? And different systems use it in different ways.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. And one thing I’ve always looked at when I look at where water– because I love watching how water moves around– is the aqueducts, I think they’re in California, that move the water, they’re not covered. I mean, how much water must evaporate from these things by the time they get to where they want to go? Thinking about building the right kind of infrastructure.

DEB CHACHRA: And I think one of the things that we’re getting at here is that at the time they were built, that seemed like a perfectly reasonable idea, right? It’s like, well, we’re going to lose a little bit of water to evaporation, but it’s not worth making the effort to cover them.

But this sort of gets at this idea that in a world where our climate is changing, and it’s changing in unpredictable ways, we’re suddenly revisiting these decisions. It’s like, was that really– or not so much was that the right idea at the time, but is that the right idea moving into this uncertain future? And so those are the types of questions that we’re now facing for all of our infrastructural systems, which is as the landscape they’re embedded in changes, as it gets hotter or drier or wetter or more liable to have forest fires, how does that change how we think about and how we build our infrastructural systems?

IRA FLATOW: Mhm. We have to take a break in about a minute or so, but this all sounds like money, right? Isn’t that at the bottom of how we might change things? Do people have to spend money on this? Will they for climate change?

And that’s not a question can answer as an engineer. But it’s a question that we talk about a lot because whether you’re going to be putting in new kinds of power plants, you’re going to be switching to solar, you’re going to be moving electricity around in a grid, all those questions are questions of money. And I want to get back to those because we have a lot of callers on the phone who are going to ask those kinds of questions.

So let’s take our break now. And we’ll get back and answer these questions by taking some of these great calls. Our number, 844-724-8255, 844-SCITALK. Stay with us.

You can also tweet us. Yes, tweet us @SciFri. We’ll try to get your question or your comment on the air that way. Stay with us. We’ll be right back after this break.

I’m talking with Dr. Deb Chachra, author of How Infrastructure Works– Inside the Systems That Shape Our World. She’s professor of Engineering at Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Massachusetts. Stay with us. We’ll be right back.

This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. In case you’re just joining us, we’re continuing our conversation with Dr. Deb Chachra, author of How Infrastructure Works– Inside the Systems That Shape Our World. Lots of phone calls, 844-724-8255. Let’s go to Anthony in Rochester, New York. Hi, Anthony.

AUDIENCE: Oh, hi, Ira. Wow. What a treat to be on Science Friday. Hi. So my question was, and it’s more of just a thought because I know a lot of the answers, but what is it that’s keeping us from really achieving high-speed rail? I’m from Rochester, and New York cities are about 75 to 100 miles apart. I’m from Albany. And getting from Rochester to Albany is just a nightmare in a car. Or if you’re daring to take the Amtrak from here to Rochester, I mean, you’d better be prepared for a one to two-hour delay, even longer, because we don’t own the lines. They’re corporately owned.

So what can we do? I’m 38 years old, and I’m trying to get people involved and making change. And I just don’t know what the actual roadblocks are.

IRA FLATOW: Good question. Deb, do you have an answer? Because they tried this experiment out in California, right, building a railroad from San Francisco to LA. Not going so well.

DEB CHACHRA: So it is really hard to build collective systems, right? It requires that we think and act collectively. And I think that we, particularly in the US, are a little bit out of practice for how to do this. Everyone talks about, oh, we haven’t really built anything new in 20 or 40 years. And it’s like, oh yeah, that means that we are out of practice in how to do it, both in the social sense of how do we coordinate around it, and even in practical technological sense of how do we manage these types of engineering projects?

I wish I had a simple answer to why is it so hard to do this. And certainly I don’t want to do a disservice to the many people who spent a lot of time and their careers working in policy by pretending I do. I understand that it is complicated.

But I think one piece of it is people like you, Anthony, saying, this is the thing that we want. Right, this is the thing that we want to commit to, that we want the political will to make this kind of change. It’s definitely going to be a key part of those changes happening.

I live in Boston, and I love taking the train to New York. That is absolutely my preferred way to go down the corridor. And there really is the potential for this to be how we manage the intercity mobility. And a chunk of how we’re going to get there is people saying, this is the thing we want.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah. Well, this is something I would love to see. In other countries like China, which have wider open expanses, where you don’t have to elevate the railroad so high and go around people, they have done it. And if you ride those trains, you say, I want one back home.

Tim in Anchorage, hi. Welcome to Science Friday. Hi, Tim.


IRA FLATOW: Hi there.

AUDIENCE: Sorry, there was a disconnect. Tim calling from Alaska.

IRA FLATOW: Go ahead.

AUDIENCE: Thanks for taking my call.

AUDIENCE: Yeah, so as there are many people across the country discussing hydrogen, I wanted to get the thoughts of yourself and Dr. Chachra on the prospects that you see for clean hydrogen and the need for development of infrastructure. And briefly, a comment here in Alaska, we are also having that discussion. I am sitting today close to Anchorage, Alaska. And by many standards, Alaska’s fairly remote from the Lower 48, anyway.

But we’re also at the crossroads for international commerce. We’re about 9 and 1/2 hours by air from about 90% of the developed world, and certainly just about halfway on the great circle route for maritime transit with cargo going between Asia and North America. So we’re preparing and having discussions for transition to hydrogen as one of the fuel or energy carriers in the future.

IRA FLATOW: Because you could move it around on ships and things. Yeah. Well, Deb, what do you think? Hydrogen is sort of a stepchild of the energy carriers these days.

DEB CHACHRA: Yeah. I mean, I think that fossil fuels are amazing. We use them for excellent reason, right? They have an incredible amount of energy density. That means that for a given amount of mass, we get a lot of usable energy out of them. They’re really easy to transport and move around.

And more than anything, however, we have a century and change of investment in how to work with these systems and how and to build out the systems that make it possible to drive across the country or fly around the planet and have fossil fuels available to fuel you where you go. So it’s kind of hard for us to wrap our brain around the fact that we are at the beginning of this new thing. And the beginning means that we’re not– there are no set, oh, well, this is how we’re going to do it. This is what the pathway is going to be.

We see this in the early history of, say, electricity, where– and we see remnants of it with different power plugs in different places, right, that we try a bunch of different things and settled on a bunch of different standards. And so I see decarbonizing as something very similar, that there’s many, many different options, and there’s many different pathways, and we’ll end up exploring different pathways to see which ones are the ones that work best for particular applications or in particular places. But it seems very likely that there will be a multiplicity of approaches how to decarbonize things like fuel.

IRA FLATOW: Mhm. Speaking of that, following that kind of thought, you talk lovingly in your book about the local nuclear power plant you visited as a kid. Has your fondness for nuclear power continued as you learn more about it as an engineer? And should nuclear power play a bigger role in our future energy needs?

DEB CHACHRA: So one of the ways in which I think about infrastructure is that it connects us to the people who live around us. So you mentioned being in a city. And we talked about how if you live in a city, you share your clean water with everyone who lives in the same place as you. And you make the collective decision to build out a reservoir and aqueducts and bring the water. And you build that out for the people who are going to live where you are in the future as well, right? We are benefiting from the systems that were built 50 or 100 or even more years before now.

And so when you think about nuclear in the context of not just the present, but the people who are going to live in this place into the future, then it really sort of puts that into perspective of, OK, nuclear has these long-term hazards that we want to think about. We want to mitigate those harms, or we want to manage those harms. We don’t want to just dump them. Just like we don’t want to dump them into people who live in a different place, we don’t want to dump them onto the people who are going to live in this spot in the future.

And so I think– I mean, I think that nuclear has an enormous amount of potential. I also think that we need to think very hard about how we would manage and mitigate the risks so that we do not just sluff the problem onto another generation or many future generations.

IRA FLATOW: Of course, the trend in nuclear is to go really small, right, small little nuclear power plants that are kind of local.

DEB CHACHRA: Right, but that still doesn’t– they’re local. They are geographically local, but they are still temporally extended, right? They still have concerns that extend forward into the future.

IRA FLATOW: And as you point out in your book, there’s inequality built into some of these big, important infrastructure systems, like Niagara Falls, right? Tell us about the history of Niagara Falls.

DEB CHACHRA: Sure. And so one of the things that I realized when I started digging into these systems is that there’s really inequality built into virtually all of them. And so one way of thinking about this is that these systems bring resources to where we use them.

And so it’s like, again, if you just think of water as a very basic idea, if you live in a city, it brings water to where you are. And it brings it very efficiently and well, and you benefit from it. Well, any system that can bring that to you also can take it away from somewhere else. And it also means that you can displace the harms to a different place.

So Niagara Falls, downstream of Niagara Falls, there are two power plants, one of which is for New York City. And it was built by Robert Moses, which I’m sure is a familiar name to many of your listeners.

IRA FLATOW: Oh yes, oh yes, infamous.

DEB CHACHRA: The infamous Robert Moses. And so in order to build that power station, Moses went to the Supreme Court to break a treaty obligation to the Tuscarora Tribe to take over part of the land of the reservation there to be used as a reservoir. And so this is a really noteworthy example of how you can make decisions that benefit one group of people, but the price of those decisions is paid by a different group of people in a different place.

And that pattern really repeats itself over and over when you look at networked infrastructures. So it’s like, if you use electricity, where is the electricity being generated? If it’s a coal-fired plant, where is that coal coming from?

I mean, the simplest example is if you have a stove or a furnace or a car, that carbon dioxide goes in the air, and it affects people all over the world, whether or not they benefited from that energy usage. So this is sort of an intrinsic issue with infrastructure, is that anything that benefits people by bringing resources to them can also and historically has been used to extract resources from somewhere else or to displace the harms to somewhere else. And so having a really clear-eyed view of these infrastructural networks means seeing both sides of this and understanding that they’re inextricably linked.

IRA FLATOW: All right, let’s go to the phones again, lots of callers. Isaac in Missouri. Hi, Isaac.

AUDIENCE: How do you do? Thank you for having me on. Love the show. Hey, I’m a geologist. I’ve worked in several different industries. Currently I’m mining critical elements in Southern Missouri– lead, zinc, copper, nickel, iron, and cobalt. But previously, I worked on an expansion project of the Kentucky Lock. I served as basically the geologic and geotechnical project manager and got to really learn about the TVA and–

IRA FLATOW: The Tennessee Valley Authority.

AUDIENCE: Yeah, and the juggernaut that it is of generation of energy, of controlling the geomorphology, generating power, but also, man, to see the coal barges come through or to smell the wood pulp barges come through or the pig iron and to see the core of these dams and–

IRA FLATOW: You got to give me a question here because I only have 10 minutes left.

AUDIENCE: Oh, my bad. I’m sorry. Yeah, can you just kind of comment a little bit on what the TVA is? And can you just kind of expand? Because I feel like it’s a resource that is so pivotal to our country, and no one knows about it.

DEB CHACHRA: Right. So it’s funny that you should say, talk about the TVA in particular. But, of course, we actually hear about it all the time. And we hear about it in the context of the Green New Deal because the TVA was part of the decision that was made between the two world wars that electricity was a thing that everybody in the United States needed to benefit from. And so there was this huge federal mandate to build out the TVA, to build out the Bonneville and the Western dams and the Rural Electrification Administration to build out the networks to bring grid electricity to everyone, no matter where you lived.

And part of the idea behind the Green New Deal is to update that, is to basically say, look, we made this incredible investment to build out these systems that everyone would benefit from, and it’s time to do that again. And you’ve seen the TVA, and you’ve seen the incredible investment and the incredible amount of work and labor that goes into it. And we can do this again, right, that we can make the decision that we are going to build systems that benefit everyone again, just like we did during the New Deal that resulted in the TVA.

IRA FLATOW: And how should we then make the– well, let me just remind everybody that this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. How should these decisions be made?

DEB CHACHRA: Well, I really like the idea that politics is what you get when you have any group of people who are in a sustained relationship with each other, something that they can’t walk away from easily. And infrastructure is a really pure and obvious example of that, right? We’re building these systems in our planet. None of us can leave the planet and certainly even where you live, the city you live in or the town that you live in. So figuring out how to make these decisions is, in fact, the work.

I said at the beginning of this segment that we have gone a really long way to figuring out the technological side of it. But what we really are is figuring out the social side of it, is how do we make the decisions? How do we move forward? But as I said, I think the thing that’s really changed is that we can now see that there is a forward to move to, that 20 years ago, it would have been, well, we want to keep catastrophe from happening. We need to sacrifice and work and spend money so that we can limit the effects of climate change, right, to keep bad things from happening.

And the thing I think that’s really changed is that now we are looking at the possibility of we can rebuild a system that will not just– it will solve climate change almost as a side effect, right? The real goal is to bring in these new technologies and to rebuild our infrastructure to be equitable, to be resilient, to be sustainable, to continue to work for the generations to come, just like we benefit from the ones that were built for us.

IRA FLATOW: So do I hear you saying that instead of choosing one system to build first, we need to look at the whole picture before we do that.

DEB CHACHRA: Yeah, and I think especially– sorry.

IRA FLATOW: No. I mean, people talk about, well, I want to get– I want to build the grid, or I want to build the highways, or this bridges. We need to look at how it’s going to affect climate change.

DEB CHACHRA: So certainly one of the– let me try again. So certainly one of the things we really need to do is figure out where our energy comes from, right? The world runs on energy. We think about paying for things in dollars, but the actual currency of the material world is joules, right? It’s energy.

So getting a handle on decarbonization means getting rid of fossil fuels and bringing in renewables. But once we do that, that really changes everything.

So one of the things that the TVA did is that access to inexpensive hydroelectricity meant that a world of industrial production suddenly became possible because suddenly things that you couldn’t do before, like make aluminum, because it just took too much energy, became really feasible. And so we can now imagine, well, if all of the energy in the world is like hydroelectricity, that it’s relatively inexpensive, it’s renewably sourced, and we build it out in a way that’s equitable, it really opens up a new realm of possibilities in terms of industrial, our industrial production. What do we build? How do we build it?

And in particular, we can move away from the idea that we take things out of the ground, do something to them, and then dump them back into the ground, and instead really work on closing materials loops, so recycling. Any atoms that come out of the ground get reused into new atoms instead of being thrown out. So on the one hand–

IRA FLATOW: We’ve got to go, but this is all great stuff, Deb. It’s in your book, How Infrastructure Works– Inside the Systems That Shape Our World. Dr. Deb Chachra, thank you for taking time to be with us today.

DEB CHACHRA: Thank you so much for having me. And if our listeners want to read excerpts from the book, they can go to sciencefriday.com/infrastructure.

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