Learning from history
Bridge safety expert and self-proclaimed history enthusiast Chris Mazzotta is currently conducting research for the Center for Advanced Infrastructure and Transportation at Rutgers University, while working toward his master?s and Ph.D. in structural engineering.
Mazzotta's research involves the nondestructive testing of bridges. Bridges are a difficult part of the transportation system to manage, partly because they require highly trained and skilled engineers to build, and partly because they need to be monitored regularly for structural integrity. A number of factors, such as erosion (or, bridge scour), heavy traffic, and even time can cause bridges to lose some, most, or all of their original structural integrity. Problematically, when bridges deteriorate beyond a certain point, they can collapse very suddenly and unexpectedly, leading to tragedies like the Minnesota bridge collapse of 2007, which killed 13 people and injured dozens of others.
The solution, then, seems to be to monitor bridges on a regular basis. This is more complicated than it may seem, however, because a) some bridges are very large and are therefore very hard to examine by traditional methods; and b) some methods of testing bridges are actually damaging to the bridge, or at least require lengthy traffic closures to perform the work. Such factors make frequent testing both expensive and undesirable. This is where Mazzotta's research comes in.
Nondestructive testing is useful because it provides engineers with convenient ways to assess the condition of a bridge without causing damage. Nondestructive test methods can also reduce the need for traffic closures during the testing process.
Mazzotta said it was his love of history that got him interested in structural engineering in the first place.
For example, he finds interest and inspiration in the construction techniques of the ancient Romans, and even draws fascinating comparisons between their ancient structures and our modern designs. He pointed out that a type of concrete developed thousands of years ago by the Romans--a certain kind that doesn't run when poured, and is therefore very useful for bridge construction--was only recently "re-discovered" by engineers in the late 20th century. He used the Coliseum as another example of Roman engineering ingenuity that was surely ahead of its time.
“Looking at the Coliseum ? you can find that they could empty tens of thousands of people in a matter of minutes, which is even more efficient than our system,” he said.
To learn more about structural engineering or nondestructive bridge testing, there are a number of organizations you can explore. To start, check out The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) website; the American Society for Nondestructive Testing; or the American Concrete Institute.