Today, we expect to be surprised. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
Gilbert and Sullivan warn us
Things are seldom what they seem,
Skim milk masquerades as cream;
Highlows pass as patent leathers;
Jackdaws strut in peacock's feathers.
And a demographer named Joel Cohen agrees with
them. He warns us that our complex world can
For example, the first line of common sense says
that adversaries will resolve their differences if
they just sit down and talk. But when we describe
negotiation mathematically, we have to include the
rate at which negotiation hardens the positions of
the negotiators. Whether opposing parties
eventually agree, or trigger a nuclear holocaust,
depends on how fast that hardening goes. Of course,
that's why we have professional counselors and
arbitrators. That's why we limit contact between
leaders during summit meetings.
In another example, Cohen thinks about including
crossroads between crowded highways. We certainly
expect that crossroads will increase driver options
and speed traffic. But analysis shows that such
roads often make matters worse by creating local
Cohen shows that adding redundancy to a design
doesn't always make it safer. He shows that
successful paths of pursuit should often be
indirect ones, and so forth. At first we're
intrigued by his arguments, but then a second
realization kicks in. It is that we'd live in a
deadly dull world if common sense alone could lead
us through all the mazes around us!
Technologists of every stripe are trained to think
abstractly. They study mathematics and complex
science. That's because it's the very nature of the
creative process to take us where we don't expect
to go. Analysis helps us to see things that direct
vision doesn't reveal.
The simple fact is that if what we learn is what we
expect to learn, then we haven't learned anything
at all. Sooner or later, every student of heat flow
finds out that adding insulation to a small pipe
can sometimes increase the heat loss from it. You
don't learn that from common sense. By the same
token, no one ever put liquid in tension until a
19th-century scientist first showed that it was
theoretically possible to do such a strange thing.
Common sense is that center of gravity that we
return to from our flights of fancy. But it's the
delicious surprise -- the idea that precedes
expectation -- that makes science, technology, and
invention such a delight to work in.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Cohen, J.E., The Counterintuitive in Conflict and
Cooperation. American Scientist, Vo. 76,
No. 6, 1988, pp. 576-584.
This episode has been greatly revised as Episode 1778.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2018 by John H.
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