Today, a tolerance for ambiguity. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
The New York Times,
Science Times can provide a fine view of the
current science landscape. Take the one for
Tuesday, March 23, 2004. Articles deal with
medicine, nuclear power, and the environment.
The lead article is about Austrian scientist Gernot
Zippe. He worked with the Luftwaffe in WW-II and
was captured by the Russians. They assembled an
elite German team to solve a tough problem --
separating out the rare isotope of uranium, U-235.
It's very hard to do, whether for peaceful reactors
or for bombs.
Zippe conceived a large array of high-speed
centrifuges, each feeding the next with gas that's
successively richer in U-235. The Russians let him
go back to Austria in 1957. Since then, he's worked
only on peacetime uses of his invention, and his
centrifuges remain the primary means for obtaining
U-235. As the technology improves, both
power-production and bomb-making get easier.
Now, another article on the same page with equally
tough ramifications: For years, I've wondered
what's to become of gross anatomy in medical
schools, as computers become capable of displaying
every detail within our bodies. Well, now gross
anatomy seems headed the way of high school shop
courses. The class hours allotted to it dwindle,
and so does the supply of qualified instructors.
Medical schools are trying to decide how to deal
with the subject.
On the surface of it, students have less sensate
contact with what they'll be called on to do as
doctors. On a deeper level, cutting into a cadaver,
the former home of a living person, marks a
profound passage from student to doctor. It puts in
perspective, the doctor's absolutely unique
relationship with living patients.
That Times article no more solves this
problem than it resolves the implications of
simplifying uranium enrichment. But good
citizenship means living effectively with ambiguity
and complexity. In a world where we're hammered by
either/or political thinking, this is a
wonderfully refreshing breath of air.
So, if you have patience for still more unresolved
questions, look at the environmental articles in
Science Times: A mountain railway in
Montana is killing bears that wander onto the
track. Elk are being paralyzed in southern Wyoming
because they've wandered into an area where the
lichen they find happens to be laced with usnic
acid. The flying Kiwi birds, after whom New
Zealanders name themselves, are suddenly dying off.
These troubles no more admit easy answers than
those surrounding uranium and anatomy. A few
inconspicuous inner pages of the newspaper thus
remind us that science is really about developing
patience and a high tolerance for ambiguity. Read
only the front-page headlines, and you might think
our world is nothing more than an unending
collision of absolutes. Well it is not. Patience
and concentration are still around to save us --
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
The New York Times, Science Times, Tue,
March 23, 2004, pp. D1-8.
The Judgment of Solomon -- putting ambiguity to use
(from Iconum Biblicarum,
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H.