Friday, November 4, 2011

The paradox of success and failure in engineering

This weekend I had the pleasure of attending a lecture by Prof. Henry Petroski on the paradoxical relationship between success and failure in engineering.  Prof. Petroski is the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and Professor of History at Duke University. His lecture is part of a series to celebrate the University of Iceland’s centennial.  Professor Petroski’s point is very simple and paradoxical:  success in design is achieved by anticipating failure; in other words, if we want a design to succeed we need to anticipate how it might fail so that the design includes features that prevent such potential failures.  On the other hand, if we adopt a successful design, chances are that it will fail somewhere down the line.  If readers are intrigued by this notion, I would encourage them to watch the lecture on   It is quite energizing to see how the interaction between two great universities (Háskóla Íslands and Duke) can illuminate our lives.