Today, a fireside university. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
I do love these old books on
technology and science. Here's a beautiful thick
volume called The Fireside University of Modern
Invention -- written by popular writer John
McGovern in 1898. Like so many such books, it's
done in question-and-answer form.
Many of these books were excellent, but this was
not. As McGovern floundered in the sea of
fast-breaking new knowledge, he revealed the danger
that threatens any popular science-writing.
He begins with electricity. First question in the
book, "What is electricity?" His hopeless reply:
"It is believed to be one of the many
demonstrations of what may plainly be called
physical force." He muddles along in this vein and
finally asks what electricity is good for. When
electricity eventually reduces hard labor to near
zero, he says, the mental progress of all people
will be greatly enhanced. You decide how many
points to award him on that one. It might depend on
what you mean by mental progress.
He asks whether the units of ohms, amperes, volts,
joules, or watts can be defined in common language.
Since he himself cannot do so, he simply grumbles
that they cannot be defined.
But he's curiously undaunted. At length he asks.
"What three cardinal things may be named in the
Universe?" His answer, "Motion, Matter and Life."
Then he asks, "Wherein does Life differ from
Motion?" His answer is priceless: "Life is a Motion
that is eccentric, jerky or suspended. It has no
regularity or period."
While he generally fans the air with the big
questions, he does tell us much about the coffee
trade, cheese-making, producer gas, power looms.
Yet he seems unable to resist posing questions
before which he is quite powerless. Science was
opening up before us in 1898, and McGovern was
drawn in -- craving to explain it while utterly
without the tools needed to do so.
About the time he's being beaten down by the
periodic table, he suddenly lurches to ask, "What
may be said of Tin Cans?" His answer: "They are the
most numerous, best and cheapest utensils man has
ever made, but their use is accompanied with the
most astonishing waste [since] they must be cut
open in order to empty them."
Three years later Planck created quantum mechanics.
Four more, and Einstein gave us special relativity.
New McGoverns have emerged in every generation,
with tongue-tied texts trying to tell us what it's
all about, and each is soon forgotten. But this
beautiful volume remains, with its steel engravings
and McGovern's uncomprehending ambition to teach
what he does not fathom.
The direct road to understanding science
is also the most exciting. It is the patient
process of studying science -- wonderfully
rewarding and soul-settling. The huge failing of
this book, like so many before and since, is that
it presumes that process to be too hard -- a labor
to be dodged. It is not. Try it yourself. Learn the
math, pursue the process. And then, you'll see.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
J. McGovern, The Fireside University of Modern
Invention, Discovery, Industry and Art. Chicago:
Union Publishing House, 1898, 1900, 1902.