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June 01, 1986|Peter DeLeon

BEYOND ENGINEERING: ESSAYS AND OTHER ATTEMPTS TO FIGURE WITHOUT EQUATIONS by Henry Petroski; illustrations by Karen Petroski (St. Martin's: $17.95). Henry Petroski, a professor of civil engineering at Duke University, has assembled a set of his essays to demonstrate that engineers can write as sensitively and articulately as their nominally more literate colleagues in pen. Why does he pick up this gauntlet? The Carl Sagans, Lewis Thomases and Freeman Dysons have long since interred that charge. Petroski's prose does not betray him. So the real question is whether he, as an articulate engineer, has anything worth saying, whether his essays offer any new and particular insights? The unfortunate answer is no. With few exceptions--such as his essay on book jackets--most of the essays show none of the spark reminiscent of Thomas' on biology or Sagan's on the cosmos. Indeed, a few essays--to wit, his diary reviewing a week of academic obligations--are simply boring.

Petroski's style is less at fault than his choice of subjects. Still, this collection hardly stimulates the curiosity and enthusiasm of the less- technically oriented reader. This is unfortunate, for there are no inherent reasons why the engineering sciences should be so tedious or impenetrable. In this sense, "Beyond Engineering" serves the medium far better than the message.

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