Petroski lecture

Henry Petroski lectures to the audience in Baker University Center Theatre

Photographer: Rebecca Miller

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Renowned engineering historian challenges public's awareness

Are science and engineering more alike than different?

Such is one of the many questions posed by nationally renowned engineering historian Henry Petroski, Aleksander S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and professor of history at Duke University, in his Stocker Lecture last week.

Presented by Ohio University's Fritz J. and Dolores H. Russ College of Engineering and Technology, Petroski asked the Baker University Center Theatre audience to consider whether it's important to distinguish between scientists and engineers. In the process, he showed how media coverage has contributed to our confusion.

Petroski noted the 2010 Chilean mine disaster in which 33 miners were trapped underground for 70 days until a specially-engineered capsule brought them back to the surface one by one. The Wall Street Journal quoted a topographer as saying the feat was "75 percent engineering and 25 percent a miracle," only to edit it to "75 percent science, 25 percent miracle" for the headline.

"Is science the same as engineering?" Petroski asked.

Petroski explained that to design a bridge, an engineer begins with concepts, or sketches, while a scientist would begin with formulas, or equations.

After World War II, science gained more prestige, he explained, showing vintage photos of children's science kits. "But the atomic bomb, radar -- I would call them engineering. They were 'things' – they were the development of things that were new," he said.

"Research leads to development. Science leads to engineering," Petroski added. "It was engineering, more than science, that realized the future. Innovation takes more than science – it takes entrepreneurship."

Russ College Dean Dennis Irwin said that Petroski, who has written 17 books as well as for The New York Times and The Washington Post, was chosen for this year's Stocker Lecture because he stands for the well-rounded, socially aware leader that the Russ College is committed to producing.

"Dr. Petroski is a great example of what we call a meta engineer. Not only is he an accomplished engineer, but his talents have been applied and highly recognized in the humanities," Irwin said.

"Interestingly, our alumnus Fritz Russ was highly sensitive to Dr. Petroski's perception that scientists were held in higher regard than engineers," Irwin said, explaining why, in part, Russ and his wife, Dolores, established the Russ Prize at Ohio University in 1999.

Petroski closed the talk by showing how he believed Albert Einstein understood both science and engineering, quoting Theodore Von Karman, a Hungarian-American aerospace engineer, mathematician and physicist who invented an early version of the helicopter: 

"Scientists seek to understand what is; engineers seek to create what never was," he said.