Today, let's play with questions. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
Why Do Clocks run Clockwise?
asks the title of a book by David Feldman. Why
indeed! This odd book looks at 239 such questions.
First they look innocent -- even trivial. Then we
start to see how great is our willingness to accept
things without raising enough questions.
For example: "What about those warning labels on
mattresses? What would happen if I cut one off?" I
tried that on one person who grinned and said, "I
always figured I'd be thrown in jail if I did."
Actually, the label tells you who made the mattress
and what he filled it with. It also warns the
retailer that he's required to give you that
The book goes on: "What's the difference between
flotsam and jetsam?" Flotsam comes from the Latin
word flottare -- to float. It's the
stuff that floats all the way up to the high-tide
water line. Jetsam is from jactare --
to throw. It's what you'd throw overboard if you
had to lighten the ship. Jetsam refers to the
heavier junk that hardly gets beyond the low-tide
Here's an odd one: "Why do we say royalty has blue
blood?" The answer comes from renaissance Spain.
Royalty got little exercise. Royal blood didn't
take on much oxygen. It kept a darker color. Royal
veins stood out blue on pale royal skin.
"So many birds die, why don't we see more of them
on the ground?" That's easy. Animals eat 'em. "What
does M & M stand for?" It stands for Mars and
Murrie, who once ran the company. "Why are we more
comfortable at 72 degrees than at 98?" That's
because our bodies have to be warmer than our
surroundings to shed the energy we burn all the
The questions tumble forth: Why are flush toilet
handles all on the left? Why does the moon seem
larger on the horizon than overhead? Why do horses
sleep standing up? Why do we have white half-moons
on our fingernails?
This strange little book is embarrassing -- not
because of the things we don't know. We're all
guilty of ignorance. The crime is failing to fight
our ignorance -- failing to raise questions. Any
inventor knows that invention flows from the
offbeat question that no one else thinks to ask.
Questions and creativity go hand in hand. The book
embarrasses us by reminding us of all the questions
we never asked.
So why do clocks rotate clockwise? It's because the
first clocks were made to imitate sundials. Sundial
shadows -- at least the ones north of the equator
-- rotate from west to north to east. And that's
what clocks are still imitating, even today.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds