Today, I want to talk about ice cream, the DC-3,
and baroque violins. The University of Houston's
College of Engineering presents this series about
the machines that make our civilization run, and
the people whose ingenuity created them.
I recently went to hear the
great baroque violinist Reinhard Goebel playing
music by Heinrich Biber. Painted inside the lid of
the accompanying harpsichord was the oddest motto:
Scientia non habet inimicum nisi ignorantiam --
Knowledge has no enemy other than ignorance -- a
puzzling thought for a concert.
Baroque violins don't really differ that much from
modern ones. The fine Amatis and Strads all had
this form until about 1800. Then their necks were
lengthened. Their gut strings were replaced with
metal. Their bridges were raised. And they were
played with a different bow. They were turned into
the powerful modern instrument we all know. Still,
it's the technology of their use that changed the
The real difference between the two instruments is
the way they're played. The modern violin sounds
forceful and declamatory in comparison with its
baroque ancestor. Baroque violin playing has a
gentler tone with hardly any vibrato. The complex
nuances of bowing give it a sort of swelling-fading
sound. It's very free-flowing and expressive.
Some new technology improves old technology. Some
replaces it for other reasons. All my life I've
tried to replicate the home-made ice cream my
great-aunt gave me on her farm in Illinois.
Everyone who makes ice cream advertises the
homemade taste, but no one duplicates it. You
simply can't with manufactured ice cream.
Manufactured ice cream doesn't improve my
great-aunt's technology. It simply replaces it with
ice cream that's more generally available.
So much technology is like that. The 50-year-old
DC-3 airplane wasn't improved by later airplanes.
People who want small transport planes to get in
and out of short landing strips and make short hops
still buy DC-3s if they can get them. Today's
airplanes don't often have to serve those
functions; but when they do, the DC-3 is still the
Nobody will claim that later buildings improved on
Chartres cathedral -- or that steamers improved on
clipper-ships. These replacements were made for
many reasons, but not always by superior
That strange inscription on that harpsichord the
other night! "The only enemy of knowledge is
ignorance." The gentle expressive baroque violin,
my great-aunt's ice cream, and the functionally
perfect DC-3, all represent knowledge -- technology
-- that stands up to any rational challenge. The
only attack that can harm them is ignorance -- they
can be forgotten.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds