Today, a thought about the language of technology.
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.
The government has developed
a high-school course called Principles of
Technology. It uses engineering problems to teach
physics. Teachers show live problems to the class
and then suggest the underlying physics. The course
teaches scientific literacy to average students --
not bound for college. The program seems to work.
Students come out knowing a great deal.
Still, the course has critics. The students don't
know formal math. Teachers can't use the language
of science. And we must wonder: Is knowledge flawed
when it can't be said mathematically? Has it been
bent when it isn't said in the right words?
For example, suppose I say that electricity flows
in wires the way water flows in pipes. That's very
clear, but it's only true when the pipe flow is
laminar. Water moves too fast for that in most
pipes. The pipe flow in your house is turbulent. To
double the water flow you need four times the
pressure. To double the current in a wire you only
have to double the voltage.
That would be so much easier to say in mathematics.
I want to use terms like: instability and momentum.
I want to tell what took me years to learn. I want
to use the elegant words that seem to certify my
worth in the world.
So should I tell half the story to students who
will otherwise never know any physics? Or should I
just send those students off to a shop class and
tell them nothing at all about electricity or fluid
flow or theoretical mechanics?
In the end, I'll take half a loaf. After all, James
Watt didn't know thermodynamics, and Henry Ford
didn't know operations theory. Gothic cathedral
builders couldn't read Euclid in Latin.
At the same time, the modern engines of our
ingenuity are the fruit of very complex thinking.
They still rise out of raw human imagination. But
their flesh and blood are woven from formal
physics, math, and chemistry.
This is no easy problem. We need the refined
language of math and science, but we also overblow
its importance. Poet Jack Gilbert caught it when he
I must learn to speak my thoughts in the
vernacular. We all must find ways to leave our
beautiful Latin. Only when we do that will the world
see the real beauty of the things we make and of the
things those engines have to say.
It is clear why the angels come no more.
Standing so large in their beautiful Latin,
How could they accept being refracted
So small in another grammar, or leave
Their perfect singing for this broken speech?
Why should they stumble this alien world?
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds