Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2386
ONE OF THESE IS TRUE

by John H. Lienhard

Today, one of these is true. 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.

Talking day after day, about the saga of human ingenuity harbors a danger. Ingenuity is unexpected. It is, by its nature, a surprise when we tell of it. And we hunger for surprise. So we're constantly tempted by stories of things that might be true, things we wish were true -- things that are almost surely not true.

H. G. Wells Time Machine We told one another about flying machines long before flying machines existed. But we also tell stories about time machines when we don't really expect one will ever be made. We share our imaginings. We write fiction novels. And all because we so crave to be surprised. Perhaps, if I offer a short list of things that I'm certain are nonsense, you'll see what I mean.

I've mentioned many of these on air before. And each has cost me angry letters from the small set of listeners who believe it to be true. I'm confident in each disbelief on my list. And yet, there is a catch. Here's my short list:

Perpetual motion is impossible. Sasquatch is a creature of our imaginations. So too is the Loch Ness Monster. Amelia Earhart was not captured by the Japanese, nor did she survive her disappearance at sea. The World Trade Center was not taken down by preset charges. JFK was killed by a lone gunman. The Bermuda Triangle offers no special dangers. There are no aliens in area 51. UFO sightings are all misinterpretations of commonplace sights. Alien abduction stories are fantasies. Ghosts of the dead do not communicate with us. The human species was not created without biological antecedents. Time travel will not be invented at some future date. Nor will we ever travel at speeds exceeding the velocity of light. And the NASA moon landing did not take place in a TV studio.

Now the catch: Almost everyone will be offended by at least one of my assertions. And I say that with no disrespect. That's because, I'm certain to be wrong on one such claim. Even though I'd stake my well-being on each, I know that, if I were omniscient, I'd be surprised by some item that's true after all.

As I write, we're in the midst of yet another political campaign. We're all playing a similar "what is true?" game in that arena. Each party, each faction, brings forth evidence for the goodness or the evil of this candidate or that. The problem is, we can always find evidence to support what we want to believe. I'm doomed if I can't sustain doubt in the face of evidence.

Doubting Thomas But that coin has a flip side: I also must doubt my own convictions. So I've made a list that could easily be made much longer. I expect that I hold at least one disbelief to offend anyone. Yet, something on that list will prove to be true after all.

Which one? Well, I don't have any idea. But as surely as I struggle to doubt anything I'm told, one of those claims will turn out to be true despite my doubts. If that weren't that case, we would be living on a very flat earth, indeed.

I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


I recommend the Wikipedia articles on: perpetual motion, Sasquatch, Nessie, Amelia Earhart's disappearance, JFK's death, Bermuda Triangle, Area 51, UFOs, alien abductions, spiritualism, Creationism, time travel, speed of light, moon-landing hoaxes. Each article bends backward to accommodate supporters, yet none leaves them much wiggle room.

Perpetual Motion Machine


Images: The Time Machine illustration is a book cover (advertising,) the illuminated page appears to be in the public domain, we adapted the overcentered wheel image from a Wikipedia illustration.

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2008 by John H. Lienhard.