Today, a new take on ignorance. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
Questions fascinate me. Try five familiar ones:
First: Have you stopped beating your
Second: Hi, how are you?
Third: What is that supposed to mean?
Fourth: When does the next bus leave?
Have you considered the Gertz lemma in your
That last questioner is pretty sure that you've
made a damaging oversight. But then, the only real
question in this list is "When does the next bus
leave?" "Hi, how are you?" was never meant to be
answered. The other three are intended to trap, to
accuse, or simply to show off.
I'm pretty sure that the only real function of a
teacher is to guide students in asking and pursuing
questions. Once a student develops the rare talent
for seeking out his or her own ignorance, teachers
become irrelevant. But it's hard to look at your
own ignorance. And it's not easy to ask a true
question. It feels like humiliation.
So let's liken the flow of knowledge to the flow of
water. Water flows from high places to low places.
It flows from a region of high pressure to one of
low pressure. Knowledge likewise flows to the point
of greatest ignorance.
Years ago I asked what the second law of
thermodynamics was all about. My textbook put it
this way: You can never build a heat engines that
takes energy from a single heat source, does useful
work, and has no other effect upon its
surroundings. I thought I had an answer to my
question -- that I understood the second law.
Then I heard someone say that the second law of
thermodynamics gave an "index of the order of the
disunity of the universe" (whatever that meant!)
Now I had two wildly different answers to one
question. My ignorance opened up before me, and
knowledge was ready to flow in a way it had not
When I owned the first answer I felt smart. But my
smartness was a dam, preventing additional
knowledge from flowing to me. Having two answers
that didn't match, set up discomfort and
dissonance. Where I'd been smart, I was now
ignorant. The dam broke. I really began learning.
History offers many such cases. The checkered
history of identifying the gas oxygen
traces all the way from ancient alchemy to
nineteenth-century atomic-based chemistry. At each
troubled step, one more dam of expertise had to
crumble so some bright person could again be
blessed with the frustration of ignorance — with
the needfulness that begets honest questioning.
The word ignorance carries so much
negative freight. We use it to mean a lack of
desire to know, or an inability to know. Well, put
all that freight aside: To be ignorant and then
crave to erase that ignorance — that is power.
Whatever my business might be, I'm best served when
I begin it by finding the place where I know the
least. If I begin as the expert, I learn nothing.
But, when I start out ignorant, then the fun really
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
A more complete and precise statement of the heat
engine statement of the second law of thermodynamics
would go as follows:
It is impossible to create a heat engine which,
operating in a cycle, would have no effect upon its
surroundings other than cooling a single isothermal
thermal reservoir and lifting a weight
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H.