Forum: March-April 2003


Uniform Perspectives

The "young U.S. Army punks in uniform" ["Letters from Afghanistan," November- December 2002] made it possible for our equally young [Barnaby] Hall to wander around Kabul taking pictures, without having to worry about getting his throat cut. His comments caused me to wonder if he was not the real punk.

Walter Boomer '60
(via e-mail)

The correspondent is the U.S. Marine Corps general, now retired, who commanded Marine forces during the first Gulf War. He is first chairman and CEO of Rogers Corporation.

Poor Portrayal

As a woman engineering graduate student at Duke, I was made to feel unwelcome and unwanted by many male faculty and peers. One faculty member explicitly promulgated his belief that women did not belong in engineering at all; not one other faculty member publicly challenged him on this. One hopes that time brings enlightenment and changes in attitude.

Imagine my disappointment upon reading in the November-December 2002 issue, in a review of Henry Petroski's latest book, that "Engineering is a discipline that separates the men from the boys.... The best engineers, be they male or female, are a lot like boys." In a misguided attempt at humor, the book reviewer does women and the profession of engineering in general a great disservice.

Obsessive inquisitiveness, love of trial and error, a knack for fiddling with gadgets, and appreciation of design and building as playtime are indeed characteristics of many good engineers. To define such traits as characteristic of boys, alone, is to imply that girls and women are somehow unnatural engineers.

Is Petroski's book truly a testament to the "indefatigable curiosity of boys," or is the book about Petroski's indefatigable curiosity? If the latter, why generalize to all boys (they don't all become engineers) and leave out girls (many of whom do)?

In To Engineer is Human, Petroski lays out a thesis that situates engineering as the most human of activities. Not the most boyish--the most human.

I don't think this is a minor issue. Consistent, persistent portrayals of engineers and engineering as the proper domain of boys and men contribute to the discouragement of many young women who could bring valuable contributions to the profession. Ask Dean Kristina Johnson if she thinks of herself as being a lot like a boy, or just a lot like a good engineer.

Suzanne Elizabeth Franks Ph.D. '91
(via e-mail)

The correspondent is director of the Women in Engineering and Science program at Kansas State University.



Elmo's Ire


I just wanted to express my disappointment in your publishing the recent piece "Searching for the Soul of Elmo" ["Gazette," November-December 2002]. Actually, I'm disappointed in two things:

(1) Duke University allowing an "artist-in-residence" to waste Duke's resources (to which I am a donor) on such ridiculous pursuits; and

(2) our magazine for wasting time and energy humiliating alumni in noting that this artist is associated with a prestigious institution like Duke University.

If the president and board of Duke are proud of this individual and glad to have her showcased in our magazine, I'm appalled! Perhaps you would be brave enough to ask them to comment on how such decisions are made to allow Duke resources to be spent so frivolously.

J. Mark Hudson M.B.A. '99
(via e-mail)


The article "Searching for the Soul of Elmo" made me cringe. If Ms. Heaton believed Elmo had a soul, she wouldn't be treating his body so cruelly. Fortunately, I believe that the soul of Elmo--and of teddy bears and of velveteen rabbits--are safely ensconced in the hearts of those who love them.

I sincerely hope that Ms. Heaton's search for "what constitutes a living being" will not prompt her to dissect humankind and hang our hides in an art gallery. Now that we're finally giving some credence to the mind-body-spirit connection, it would make sense to leave the three intact for purposes of research. Faith, Ms. Heaton, faith!

Sally F. Malkasian '50
Longmeadow, Massachusetts


Bad Chemistry


I had to wince when I read your article on Organic Chemistry in the January-February 2003 issue ["Syllabus, Chem 151L"]. Referring to organic chemistry as "dealing with substances found in living things" is a consequential by-product of pop culture in which the term "organic" is used to describe anything natural, pure, or "chemical-free" (an impossibility) and is often labeled as an antonym to "synthetic."

As every organic chemistry student knows (or should know, at least), the adjective "organic" refers to the chemistry of carbon-containing compounds. These include many synthetic substances and famous toxins such as mustard gas, dioxin, and DDT.

The second wince came later in the article when you mentioned "organic metals," for obvious reasons.

Steven R. Aubuchon Ph.D. '94
(via e-mail)

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