Today, we design a system in a public arena. 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.
A pretty little red squirrel
lives on Mount Graham in Arizona. In 1984 his
species numbered around 330. Mount Graham is high
up, and far from city lights. In 1984 the
University of Arizona wanted to build a large
observatory there. Mitchell Waldrop of
Science magazine tells what happened
University people wanted to begin by talking with
environmentalists. The Forest Service said that was
their job. So the University shrugged and went on
to file its site plan. The plan was ambitious. It
showed 18 telescopes on the mountaintop.
Environmentalists had lost a lot of ground by 1984.
They were livid when they finally saw the plans.
The government let things smolder two more years.
Then they passed an opinion. The virgin forest and
the squirrels needed protection. On the advice of a
lawyer, the University made a counter-proposal.
They'd make the area so safe that the squirrels
wouldn't have to go on the endangered species list.
Headlines the next day screamed that the University
meant to solve its problem by keeping squirrels off
the list. Besides, the Forest Service said it was
their business to look out for squirrels. The
squirrels did go onto the endangered list.
By 1988, the University had satisfied the
government by cutting back to seven telescopes. But
Fish and Wildlife said an access road had to be
rerouted. When the University agreed, the Forest
Service ordered another long round of public
The University, now desperate to avoid more delay,
finally used political clout to get an exception
from Congress. They paid dearly for that in
American opinion. They'd gone around the Endangered
Species act. They'd made big science look like law
unto itself. Now, as work begins, everyone is left
with a foul aftertaste. A Sierra Club official
looked sadly at his natural ally, the astronomer.
He said, "These are not the enemies we would have
chosen." Meanwhile, the squirrel population
fluctuates. For some reason, it sank to a dangerous
low during the fight -- only 140 squirrels.
So what went wrong? It's too easy to blame the
environmentalists. If we don't have people who'll
stand in front of tractors, we'll someday need
people willing to stand in front of tanks. We need
And we engineers have to hear and ingest
grass-roots debate before we finish big system
designs like this. These troubles began when public
debate mired into Kafkaesque infinity. When that
happens -- when people lose hope of reasonable
response -- common sense is doomed.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds