Renowned engineering historian speaks at Baker Center Theatre

Around 75 people gathered in Baker University Center Theater on Thursday evening to listen to Henry Petroski lecture on the differences and similarities between engineers and scientists.

Petroski, Aleksander S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and professor of history at Duke University and a renowned engineering historian, said there are many subtle differences between the two professions.

"A lot of talk these days is about innovation … At least what I hear, they think we need more science. That’s not true,” Petroski said.

During his speech, Petroski stressed that most of the inventions seen in today’s world are products of creativity, not science.

“Things come more out of the imagination more than they do the equation,” he added.

“We need failure to understand the boundaries of what we can design,” said T.J. Cyders, a mechanical design professor in the Russ College of Engineering and Technology.

Cyder uses Petroski’s book To Engineer Is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design in his course.

“I’ve always been intrigued and amused by the style in general of his articles,” said Dennis Irwin, dean of the Russ College of Engineering and Technology. Petroski was brought as part of the Stocker Lecture series, funded by the Stocker family, because of his extensive knowledge on the specific topic.

In contemporary real-world solutions, Petroski said scientists take a more prominent role, citing atomic and radar technology breakthroughs during World War II.

Petroski’s continuously harkened back to one quote throughout his lecture: “Scientists seek to understand what is; engineers seek to create what never was.” Petroski believes the quote, from engineer Theodore von Kármán, illustrates the difference between solving real world problems through engineering and solving a formula on a blackboard through science.

Though science and engineering have distinct differences, Petroski argues, they also share many similarities.

“Many people do not realize that Einstein invented ‘for the fun of it,’ and was as much of an engineer as he was a scientist,” Petroski said.

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