Today, six weeks later, we think about specificity.
The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
How terribly important it is to
stay in contact with the specific things underlying
any generalization! The best mathematicians work
outward from the specific thing to create ever
broader statements. Yet, mathematics is fueled by its
I write this program six weeks after the dark day of
September 11th. That day has gone in and out of focus
for me, as it surely has for you. Six thousand deaths
is far too abstract a thing for any of us to deal
with. It's only as we've all been caught in the
widening circle of specific effects that it's become
Piece by piece, we've learned that a friend lost a
relative, that someone we know escaped death -- or
did not. We find that a company we deal with has
suddenly ceased to exist. An event is cancelled; a
friend behaves strangely. It is only as those
specific instances reach us that such an event can
take on reality.
Thirteen days after the attacks, my wife and I walked
down into lower Manhattan -- from Washington Park to
Canal Street and then to the cordoned-off region, a
half-mile further south. We saw brave New Yorkers putting
one foot in front of the other -- opening their
shops, walking their dogs, hawking their wares,
recreating a remembered reality.
Even then, my jolt of specificity
came later still. I'd taken some pictures, mostly of
slapdash memorials that had gone up that Tuesday
evening and had grown ever since. Once I loaded them
into my computer, I saw on the screen what'd gone by
in a blur at the time. A fifteen-foot diameter
circle at Canal
Street looked like no more than a mess of
remnants and candle wax. Now the specificity emerges
on my screen: two teddy bears (why teddy bears?)
bouquets of flowers, images of the Virgin, T-shirts
(whose, I wonder). I blow up pictures of the steel mesh fence around
Washington Park and see the individual flowers,
flags, Hawaiian leis, and, always, the candles.
The pictures within the pictures suddenly
have faces! A studious young man. A woman smiling her
joy of living. A wise cleric once spoke of the "sin
of a lack of specificity." Any fool can love
humankind, he pointed out. The trick is to love the
salesman who makes a cold call while you're eating
supper. Any one can grieve a "tragic loss of
life." But then we read the flyer on a lamppost:
"This is my daughter. She worked on the 67th floor.
Have you seen her?"
Like a good mathematician, I try to work my way
outward from that afternoon in lower Manhattan. But
it'll be a long time before I can create my universal
field theory of arrested life. I keep seeing that
photo of the studious young man, and I think about
the people who put it there. As far as I yet can see,
they put it there so that I would know him.
They put it there so that I -- specifically
-- would remember that he once lived. And so I shall.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds