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Lectures Home » Henry Petroski

Henry Petroski Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Professor of History, Duke University

Einstein and Steinmetz: Prototypes or Stereotypes of Scientists and Engineers?
March 27, 2012
Stafford Little Lecture

Engineers and scientists are often grouped under the single rubric of “scientists,” but this masks some fundamental differences in how members of the two scientific cultures think and what they do. Among factors complicating the matter is the reality that the methods and goals of engineers and scientists often do overlap. Furthermore, the situation is not helped by the mass media and by popular culture, which, when they make a distinction at all, often promote professional stereotypes that are not helpful for developing an informed public, discriminating politicians, or enlightened public policy. This talk will highlight some of the main similarities and differences between scientists and engineers, employing as historical examples the prototypical scientist Albert Einstein, who was also an accomplished inventor, and the electrical engineer Charles Steinmetz, who was also a serious mathematician. Understanding the true nature of scientists and engineers—and of science and engineering—is essential for responding effectively to the global technological and economic challenges of our time.

Henry Petroski is the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University. His research activity focuses on the relationship between success and failure in design. He also has a strong interest in the nature of invention and in the history of technology (he is also a professor of history at Duke). He is  the author of To Engineer Is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design (1985); The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance (1990), The Evolution of Useful Things (1992), Design Paradigms: Case Histories of Error and Judgment in Engineering (1994), Engineers of Dreams: Great Bridge Builders and The Spanning of America (1995), Invention by Design: How Engineers Get from Thought to Thing (1996), Remaking the World: Adventures in Engineering (1997), The Book on the Bookshelf (1999), Paperboy: Confessions of a Future Engineer (2002), Small Things Considered: Why There Is No Perfect Design (2003), Pushing the Limits: New Adventures in Engineering (2004), Success through Failure: The Paradox of Design (2006), The Toothpick: Technology and Culture (2007), The Essential Engineer: Why Science Alone Will Not Solve Our Global Problems (2010), and An Engineer’s Alphabet: Gleanings from the Softer Side of a Profession (2011). In 2012, Harvard University Press will publish his newest book, To Forgive Design: Understanding Failure.