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03/27/2006 08:00:00

Wouk Lecture Speaker to Focus on "Success Through Failure" March 30

PASADENA, Calif.- -Henry Petroski, an engineer who has written for his peers and students as well as the lay public about the engineering of large (bridges) and small (the pencil) objects, will discuss "Success through Failure: The Paradox of Design" when he gives the Wouk Lecture at 4 p.m. Thursday, March 30 in Beckman Institute Auditorium at the California Institute of Technology. The lecture and parking are free.

Petroski is the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and Professor of History at Duke University.

Petroski will explore the interplay between success and failure in the design of long-span suspension bridges. The historical record shows that success was achieved through the careful study of past failures, and that failure ultimately resulted when successful models were created with an increasing disregard for fundamental caveats. Lessons learned after the collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in 1940 were virtually the same as those that had been articulated a century earlier, but that had become all but forgotten or deemed irrelevant as technology and methods of analysis advanced.

The Wouk Lecture was established in 2004 by a gift from Victor Wouk, who earned a master's degree and a Ph.D. in electrical engineering in 1940 and 1942 respectively from Caltech. The goal is to bring speakers to Caltech to provide lectures on the latest advances in science and technology.

Petroski has written broadly on the topics of design, success and failure, and the history of engineering and technology. His dozen books on these subjects are intended for professional engineers, students, and general readers alike. They include To Engineer Is Human, Design Paradigms, and Engineers of Dreams, which deal with large structures like bridges. He has also written about small, common things in his books, The Pencil, The Evolution of Useful Things, and Small Things Considered. A memoir about what predisposed him to become an engineer is titled Paperboy. His newest book, Success through Failure: The Paradox of Design, is published by Princeton University Press.

In addition to books and technical articles in refereed journals, Petroski has written many general interest articles and essays for newspapers and magazines, including the New York Times and Washington Post, and he writes regular columns for both American Scientist and ASEE Prism.

Before moving to Duke in 1980, Henry Petroski was on the faculty of the University of Texas at Austin and on the staff of Argonne National Laboratory. In 2004, he received a presidential appointment to the U.S. Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board.

Written by Jill Perry