Today, a single science for all things? 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.
Some years ago, I listened
with shock to my own voice as I defined thermodynamics for my students. I
was telling them that thermodynamics dealt with
transformations of energy and the resulting changes
in the states of matter.
Then I realized: everything that ever happens fits
that definition -- everything! We use the
word happen only when energy is
transformed in some way and matter is affected.
What overbearing hubris! I was claiming that my
subject embraced everything.
Well, maybe it can't be helped. Thermodynamics does
embrace everything. So try another term -- technology. The word
literally means "telling one another about
technique." And we have the same problem. Is there
anything we do that doesn't involve some dimension
of technique? We might drive a car, cook dinner, or
read a book. Since we always want do any of those
things better than we do, we constantly exchange
information on how to do them better.
Technique, and the telling of it, is woven through
our lives. I shudder when someone says, "I'm in the
humanities; I can't understand technology." Of
course that person understands technology. He
or she uses it every instant of every day; and
we're back in the soup. Just as everything
exemplifies thermodynamics, everything
also exemplifies technology. Everything we
know is the result of human sensory input.
Everything is a manifestation of our inner
emotional life. Everything is psychology.
Everything is philosophy.
Follow that road and we'll soon be unable to inhale
without first finding the unity of all things.
Maybe it's time to make a rear-guard case for
specificity. We cannot begin as Buddha.
Listeners often ask me to suggest one good source
on the history of technology. I reply by saying,
begin with something you find interesting. Read
Dava Sobel's book
Longitude, which focuses on the
creation of five fine eighteenth-century
Read Witold Rybczynski's book
One Good Turn, which is no more than
the history of the screwdriver. Read one book. Then
read another, and another. Read a hundred books and
you'll find yourself caught up in the way they all
Sobel begins her story of the chronometer with the
Spanish Armada. Rybczynski's screwdriver leads you
to Diderot and the philosophical rumblings before
the French Revolution. Read about the windmill, and you find it's
mirrored in Adam Smith's economics.
I see these things not so much as linked events but
as what we see when we look closely at a large
tapestry. For it all really is thermodynamics, or
literature, or psychology -- all at once. But none
of us is smart enough to begin with the whole. So
we begin with the pieces. If I race to get
beyond the pieces, I lose contact with the
When I do that, the overview loses its wonderful
texture. It becomes too grand to be interesting.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
See the many links above for source material.
(Clipart conception by Jim
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H.