PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo MARCH 2006 - VOLUME 15, NUMBER 7
Being Mistaken


How engineers are identified often depends on the situation.

Henry Petroski - Photo By Leonora HamilWhen Michael Griffin was named last year to be the new administrator of NASA, the Associated Press story in my hometown newspaper carried the headline, “Bush Picks Physicist to Serve as NASA Head,” and The New York Times story of the announcement was headlined, “Bush Nominates Physicist to Lead Space Agency.” On the basis of these declarations, it would be natural to assume of Griffin that either his highest degree, a Ph.D., was in physics or that he was working as a physicist at the time of his nomination. In fact, neither of these was the case.

Reading further into the newspaper stories, it became clear that Griffin’s academic degrees were many and diverse. His bachelor’s is in physics, and he also earned a master’s in applied physics. But in fact he had multiple master’s degrees, including one in civil engineering and one in electrical engineering, as well as an M.B.A. His doctorate is variously reported as being in aerospace science and aerospace engineering. Identifying him as a physicist seems to be like calling a medical doctor nominated to head the National Institutes of Health a biologist because that was her pre-med major or describing a lawyer nominated to a seat on the Supreme Court as a historian because that was what he studied as an undergraduate.

It may be that at one time in his career, Griffin’s job title was “physicist,” but it might just as easily and much more logically have been “engineer.” However labeled, he soon became widely known and respected in the aerospace community, having been involved in the 1980s with critical space experiments relating to the Strategic Defense Initiative. His subsequent accomplishments led to his being characterized as a “senior government executive and a leader in private industry,” his experience including a stint as chief engineer and associate administrator at NASA headquarters, as well as serving as CEO of satellite-based technology organizations like Magellan and In-Q-Tel. At the time of his appointment as the NASA administrator, he was head of the Space Department at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, which probably explains why he came to be identified as a physicist.

We tend not to be labeled so much by our academic degrees as by what we end up doing and with what organizations we associate. This has certainly been my personal experience. My bachelor’s degree is in mechanical engineering, and I once held a position as a mechanical engineer; my graduate degrees are in theoretical and applied mechanics, and most of my early publishing was in the fields of continuum and structural mechanics. However, because I have ended up writing and lecturing so frequently about civil engineering structures and for the last 25 years have been based in a civil engineering department, I am now most often introduced and identified as a civil engineer.

Michael Griffin has introduced himself as “a simple aerospace engineer from a small town.” As far as I know, he does not attempt to disabuse headline writers of their errors. After all, they are often not to blame, for they base their compositions on what is in the story. Thus, the lead paragraph of the Associated Press report identified Griffin simply as a physicist, and its headline merely repeated that. The Times story described him more accurately as a “physicist and engineer,” so its imprecise headline is less forgivable.

Henry Petroski is the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University. His newest book, “Success through Failure: The Paradox of Design,” will be published in April by Princeton University Press.


TO THE RESCUE - By Anna Mulrine
ON THE MOVE - By Thomas K. Grose
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REFRACTIONS: Being Mistaken - By Henry Petroski
A GOOD FIT - Co-op education, which celebrates its 100th anniversary, has become an increasingly important learning tool. - By Barbara Mathias-Riegel
ON CAMPUS: A Different World - By Lynne Shallcross
BOOK REVIEW: Merging Arts and Science - By Robin Tatu
TEACHING: A Nation of Techies - By Phillip Wankat and Frank Oreovicz
LAST WORD: The Terrible Two's - By Clive L. Dym


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