Today, a process within a process. 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.
We are four white-haired
college professors from four institutions. We're
planning our annual short-course for the Medical
Center. Each year we look for new ways to encourage
medical students to ask how art and medicine inform
one another. It's an odd exercise, but it really
does open doors for many students.
Three of us swap ideas about how to do it this
time, while Michael sits quietly. Then Michael
speaks. He begins haltingly, feeling his way. But
he's on to something. He quotes Napoleon, who said,
I engage myself; only then do I see. The
fact that a commitment to action precedes
understanding, Michael continues, offers a hint
about dealing with the dilemma of self-knowledge:
Even though self-knowledge is something we never
achieve, we need to go after it. Then he quotes
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Eliot's exploration, or Napoleon's self-engagement,
is essential. It inevitably takes us back to old
places. When it does, what's old is made new again,
because the process changes us.
So Michael has built a metaphor for invention.
Suppose you want to invent something: How to
proceed? Well, think about that unlikely pair:
Napoleon Bonaparte and T.S. Eliot. Napoleon
describes the process, and Eliot the
outcome. Napoleon says we'll see, only after
we dive in and commit ourselves. Eliot says that
engagement brings us back to where we began, but
with new eyes.
That's what great inventors do. When he was
twenty-five, Alexander Graham Bell engaged himself by taking a
teaching post at a school for the deaf. He married
a deaf woman whom he loved deeply; then he sought
mechanical means for helping the deaf to hear. He
came back to the world of hearing and non-hearing
with the finished telephone, but that world was
changed because he'd changed. He'd learned
to see by transmuting bedrock idealism into
As a young man, Leonardo da Vinci made
cold-blooded sketches of sexual intercourse. But
his interest in the anatomy of
procreation evolved. He was in his sixties when
he tried to use anatomical dissection to get at the
mystery of reproduction. An aging Leonardo
finally made his unforgettable drawing of an embryo
in the womb. By then he'd fused art and dissection
and changed the course of medicine. He'd engaged
himself fully. By the time he returned to his
original question, he'd given us all a new
ability to see.
Michael's idea was only a starting place for our
own exploration. We decided to make an 8-part
course out of one sketchy idea about
self-discovery. Then we realized: we were actors in
a play-within-a-play. To put the Napoleon/Eliot
idea to use, we ourselves will have to commit, to
return, and finally to see through new eyes.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
What Napoleon actually said was, On s'engage et
puis on voit.
Eliot, T. S., Four Quartets. New York:
Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1943.
The four professors were Stanley Reiser of the
University of Texas Medical Center, Blair Justice
of the University of Texas School of Public Health,
Michael Hammond, Dean of the Shepherd School of
Music at Rice University, and myself. We were (are)
planning the 1999 Health Care and the Arts Lecture
Series which will be offered to medical students
and staff, as will as to the general public, at the
University of Texas Medical School. The sessions
will be held each Monday and Wednesday Noon from
March 15, 1999 to April 21, 1999.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1998 by John H.