Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1856:
FORM AND FEELING

John Lienhard presents guest essayist Megan Cole

Today, our guest. Seattle actor Megan Cole, considers a necessary partnership. The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

There's a story about the great pianist Leopold Godowsky, who apparently had quite small hands. He was asked by an avid fan after a concert, "How can you play so magnificently with such small hands?" Godowsky replied, "Whatever gave you the idea that I play the piano with my hands?"

Good story. What he meant, I think, is that music is an experience, not just a technique, and that it's the balance between the two that creates the full musical expression.

Form and feeling: it's the classic and necessary partnership that applies to virtually all human endeavors: art, business, relationships, science, on and on. We need both objective knowledge and — let's call it — intuition to see the whole picture.

This was very clear in a concert a couple of years ago at Rockefeller University called Polymaths and the Piano. The players were amateur pianists whose day jobs are in science: doctors, mathematicians, biologists, computer scientists. They played quite difficult pieces, then sat down together and talked about the connections between music and science. In the end, most of them agreed that music, like science, is "a way to grapple with the mysteries of existence." As one electrical engineer said, "Music is evidence that reason is incapable of understanding everything."

So, art and science, so long seen as separate worlds, may have very real connections, very similar goals. One of those mutual goals, for example, is certainly discovery, the solving of the puzzle. Consider how a physician delves into a patient's particular illness, peeling away the layers of the puzzle, trying to divine the underlying truth. It's a process comparable to finding the music within the score, the meaning within the words, the story within the dance. They're all fascinating puzzles.

In fact, Robert Frost wrote somewhere about "the pleasure of taking pains." Perhaps some of the pleasure of medicine as well as of art comes from just this: the practitioner overcomes meaningful difficulties, and this is the accomplishment, the fun. In art, the artist creates the difficulties and in the medicine the difficulties are created by the disease, but the challenge is the same: to successfully overcome the imposed problems, to solve the puzzle.

It's always good to remember, though, that the experience of illness is different from its symptoms, that the experience of a poem is different from its words. "How does a poem mean?" John Ciardi once asked. "How shall I know the dancer from the dance?" Yeats wondered. For just as art and science are both ways to "grapple with the mysteries of existence," so a happy balance of form and feeling is crucial to a compassionate understanding of our difficult world.

.... Or to playing the piano, even with small hands.

I'm Megan Cole, and in the theatre, as at the University of Houston, we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Megan Cole is a noted stage and TV actor and regular visiting faculty member at the University of Texas Medical Center in Houston. She originated the role of Dr. Vivian Bearing in the Pulitzer-Prize-winning play Wit. She has also played recurring characters on Seinfeld, ER, Star Trek, Judging Amy, and other popular shows.

Big hand, little hands
(Photo devised by John and Stephanie Lienhard)


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