Today, the diffusion of generosity. The University
of Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
This morning I went to a
thank-you breakfast for a group of generous
supporters of our radio station. That occasion set
me to thinking about the term grass roots.
For all its recent political use, the Oxford
English Dictionary, the OED, defines
it merely as "The fundamental level; the source or
The oldest use, quoted in the OED, comes
from 1901, when Rudyard Kipling wrote, "Not till I
came to Shamlegh could I ... trace the running
grass roots of Evil." But Good, as well as Evil,
has its grass roots. And, as I follow the threads
of human creativity, I find a related idea rising
again and again.
It is the concept of downward diffusion of
function. For example, the first electric
motors were built large. They were used to replace
the big central steam-power plants that'd once
driven the spider's web of belts and pulleys that
ran through old factories and drove all the
individual lathes, looms, or whatever.
It took about thirty years for us to realize that,
if we strung thin electric wires through the plant,
we could put individual motors on each machine and
have far greater flexibility. The resulting factory
organization can do more, retool more quickly,
waste less energy, and achieve greater production.
That drama plays out all around us, and it's at the
heart of a new branch of math called complexity
theory -- all about very complex behavior that
wells up from large sets of simple elements.
Take, for example, an anthill. Each ant has very
limited intellect, but the aggregate behavior of
many ants, acting in parallel with one another, is
complex and multifunctional.
This is not obedience or even simple cooperation. It is, instead, the
result of information transfer and self-correcting
feedback processes. It is also something that we
humans have to relearn, again and again. We prattle
endlessly about leadership and pulling together.
But you and I really achieve something when we seek
the common good in parallel with one another, even
as we disagree and bicker.
Two enterprises (which really are two faces of the
same coin) particularly display how this works.
They are: education and Public Radio. The best
schools (at any level) operate like an anthill with
no central leadership. Rather, individual teachers,
communicating with one another and influencing one
another, work to make learning happen. Then
education is complex and effective.
That's how it is with Public Radio: Few other human
enterprises so perfectly embody parallel
processing, downward diffusion, and grass-roots
energy. Spend any time in your radio
station and you'll see it: employees, volunteers,
and the tangible presence of very individual
contributors, all shaping an extremely complex
symphony of information flow -- music, words, and
the synergistic presence of the surrounding
community. It is a wonderful thing.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
I am grateful to Edward Hugetz, Associate Vice
President for Planning and University Outreach, and
Martin Golubitsky, Mathematics, both at the
University of Houston, for technical counsel on this
episode. For more on these ideas, see Episodes
503 and 1114.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2002 by John H.