Today, we wonder where to look for our new widget.
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.
An essential, yet almost
invisible, difference divides people in pernicious
ways. It's a difference in the way we look for
knowledge. Suppose you were asked what time it was.
Would you look for a clock, or would you estimate
forward from some earlier time? Should we look for
answers inside our heads or in the world outside?
You've bought new software. Do you read the manual
before you use it, or do you expect to be able to
figure it out?
This issue dogs engineering design: We need a
widget to do a certain job. Do we go to a widget
catalog? Or do we reach inside our heads and try to
create our own widget? We'd seem to be better off
buying an off-the-shelf part. But we'll never get a
better widget from a catalog. The trouble is, two
things prevent common sense from telling us where
to look for our widget.
First, there's no possible way to gauge the widget
we might create against the widget in the catalog.
Invention is, ipso facto, unpredictable.
Only you can say which way is best for you, and you
might be wrong! The second factor is psychic need.
Some of us have to know about existing widgets
before we begin. Some of us have no patience with
worldly widgets and must create our own.
Each person drives the other to distraction, yet we
need both. Science is bedeviled by this
question. Do we deduce physical realities or do we
observe them? A great shift took place during the
1500s. For centuries, medieval philosophers tried
to deduce the way the world worked. Alchemists used
logic to predict things like the outcome of medical
treatment or of chemical reactions.
Then the new medium of print let us share
observations. Now we could make hundreds of copies
of a literal illustration. Books became the new
scientific widget catalogs. Once we could share
observations, the enterprise of science changed
The best scientific minds have always dwelt in both
worlds. But they've usually declared allegiance to
only one. Galileo didn't admit that he'd gone out
and dropped light and heavy balls off the Tower of
Pisa. He didn't say he'd seen both balls falling at
the same speed. Instead, he wrote that we should
imagine a tower and imagine the
experiment. He presented his experimental result as
a truth emerging from the mists of imagination.
Einstein was a keen observer who pretended
to derive truth from within his mind. Thomas
Jefferson, who lived in a world where science was
done by observation, compulsively listed
observations of everything. Yet he invented every
widget imaginable. It was also he who wrote that we
hold essential truths to be self-evident.
But most of us are split by this difference. We get
into all kinds of trouble because the split comes
in on little cat feet, leading each of us to think
the other is misguided. Yet our very survival
depends on both kinds of thinking. And it depends
upon it in everything we do.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds