Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2031:
TRAGEDY AND METEOROLOGY


John Lienhard presents guest Rob Zaretsky

Today, historian Rob Zaretsky with a story about tragedy and meteorology. 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.

Have we misunderstood Agamemnon? Sure, the ancient Greek hero was a bloody-minded braggart. Yes, he destroyed Troy and enslaved thousands -- including Cassandra, with whom he cheated on his wife, Clytemnestra. And these acts followed his greatest crime: sacrificing his daughter Iphigenia. But after our experience of Hurricane Rita, perhaps we are in a better position to understand, if not forgive him.

Zeus ordered Agamemnon to lead a fleet to Troy to bring back Helen and avenge her kidnapping. Yet powerful winds soon pinned his ships in a nearby port, keeping him from fulfilling Zeus' command. And, with the winds, an awesome sight: two eagles appeared, seized a pregnant rabbit, then ate it, tearing out her unborn children.

The king called upon his prophet to provide a forecast of sorts. The tidings were grim: Artemis, goddess of childbirth, demanded that Agamemnon sacrifice one of his own children in return for the countless unborn young he will kill at Troy.

Yet Agamemnon knew that Zeus has ordered him to do what Artemis sought to prevent: destroying Troy. The king shouted in despair:

Obey, obey, or a heavy doom will crush me!
Oh but doom will crush me
Once I rend my child
Pain both ways and what is worse?

Forced to choose, Agamemnon, in the words of the horrified chorus, "slipped on the strap of fate" and sacrificed Iphigenia.

Like the eagles, Hurricane Rita's approach posed a near-tragic dilemma. On the one hand, our own prophets of doom, newsroom meteorologists, sifted through the heavenly signs. And we, like the ancient Greek warriors, hung on their every word. The weatherman concluded that a catastrophic storm was coming this way. Yet, his colleague, the traffic reporter, warned us at the same time that flight was impossible. Should we try, we would, like the Greek ships, be driven back -- not by gales, but by gridlock.

Pain both ways, indeed. We seemed locked in a tragic situation: do we pile into our car and risk the horror of the paralyzed roads? Or do we pile the family into the broom closet and risk Hurricane Rita? Our prophets could do no more than Agamemnon's prophet: their task was to diagnose; it was for us to dispose.

Like Agamemnon on his storm-assaulted ship, we chose. And neither choice seemed right. For most -- but not all -- of us, our situation fell short of Agamemnon's tragic impasse. Yet the author of this book, Aeschylus, wasn't the author of our experience. And what would he have made of our hubris? Having dodged this particular bullet, do we still feel invulnerable? Do we still believe that the state and technology will always shelter us? Perhaps, as Aeschylus' chorus concludes, "we will know the future when it comes."

I'm Rob Zaretsky at the University of Houston, where we are interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


See, e.g.: Aeschylus, The Oresteia, (Introduced by Bernard Knox, translated by Robert Fagles) (New York: Penguin, 1975)

Robert Zaretsky is professor of French history in the University of Houston Honors College, and the Department of Modern and Classical Languages. (He is the author of Nīmes at War: Religion, Politics and Public Opinion in the Department of the Gard, 1938-1944. (Penn State 1995), Cock and Bull Stories: Folco de Baroncelli and the Invention of the Camargue. (Nebraska 2004), co-editor of France at War: Vichy and the Historians. (Berg 2001), translator of Tzevtan Todorov's Voices From the Gulag. (Penn State 2000) and Frail Happiness: An Essay on Rousseau. (Penn State 2001).


storm surge
[clipart]


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2005 by John H. Lienhard.