Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1800:

by John H. Lienhard

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 chronometers.

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 interweave.

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 pieces.

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 work.

(Theme music)

See the many links above for source material.

Grand Science
(Clipart conception by Jim Harter)

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H. Lienhard.