Today, we try to tell fact from fiction. 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.
effects had hardly touched the movies back in 1987.
That year I heard Ken Torrance from Cornell
University talk about his work on computer
graphics. At the time, he was creating simple still
pictures -- a crib in a room, a jar on a table.
He'd written the complicated equations for the
reflection and diffusion of light. To illuminate
his scenes, he let a computer chew through those
terrible equations until it cast light in the same
way as a lamp or the sun might do.
By then, the computer pictures we'd seen in the
movies had an odd property. Glints of reflected
light were all white. Real objects give some of
their color to the light they reflect. Only a few
materials, like plastics, reflect light without
changing it. So graphic artists talked about the
Torrance had beaten that problem. His colors
reflected correctly. They mixed perfectly in the
shadows. His pictures had the beauty and accuracy
of a Dutch master. When I saw his images, I didn't
know whether I was looking at a picture or the
thing itself. They weren't an artist's creation.
He'd written the rules of nature and then let the
computer obey those rules. In a sense he'd told the
computer how to recreate reality by recreating
Today, we've come so far in the difficult task of
parsing reality into computer language that the
results are more than just stunning. They're also
disorienting. Computers now show us how fluids move
over airfoils, through tubes, past turbine blades.
As they take us through the tortuous slow-motion
swirls of water and air, we might wonder whether
we're seeing reality or the imaginings of a
lunatic. Yet those images can be more accurate than
our imperfect attempts to isolate processes in the
While the computer's role in our lives expands
faster than we can follow it, we adopt the language
of people dealing with real things. We speak of
doing numerical experiments. We're
disarmingly casual about separating computer and
laboratory data. Computers take larger and
larger roles as partners in human
In 1987, I wondered where people like Torrance were
taking us. Since then it's grown steadily harder to
tell whether we're looking at a picture created by
an artist, a camera, or a computer. Computers can
make the sound of a concert grand piano that fools
me. As computers speak to our senses as well as our
minds, the line between realities inside and
outside the machine keeps blurring.
So Torrance fired a warning shot. Today, I think
less about change, for change has enveloped me like
a misty day. Whether we watch the latest
Godzilla or Grand Opera, we expect reality
to be extended electronically. Once we accepted the
movie convention of a model ship sinking in a
bathtub. It wasn't because our mind was fooled.
Rather, our mind completed the illusion. And that
is the task which the computer has so disturbingly
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds