Today, let's look inside a 19th-century scientist.
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 great experimental
physicist John Tyndall holds an eerie fascination
for me. He was born in Ireland in 1820. He began doing
the engineering of railway systems. And all his life he was drawn
like a moth to the flame of Romantic poetry.
His physics lay squarely between those two powerful
forces -- between the material engines of external
reality and the inner engines of the Romantic mind.
He made constant reference to the wild forces of
nature. His physics grew lyrical when he described
glaciers or the erratic behavior of flames.
Listen to this curious sentence from the preface to
his text on heat:
I have ... tried to show [how physicists] pass from
the world of the senses to a world where vision
becomes spiritual, where principles are [formed],
and from which the explorer emerges with [concepts]
to be approved or rejected as they coincide] with
Tyndall bends our usual view of the
scientific method to the language of the Romantic
poets. The scientist, he says, starts out in the
realm of the physical senses. But the creative act of
shaping sense-data into concept is a spiritual one.
Then he must bring concept down off the mountain --
back to the hard earth. There, he must put it to the
The Romantic poets shaped a new view of reality in
the early 19th century. They told us that we create
nature by dreaming nature. That sounds like
tomfoolery at first.
But scientists and inventors soon saw what the
Romantics meant. Just as a poem, or a machine, is a
reality first shaped in our minds, so too is our
concept of nature. What, after all, is nature
before our minds give it its shape?
By the end of the 19th century physics was an
intellectual marvel. Tyndall's name doesn't stand
with those who followed -- with Maxwell, Boltzmann,
or Planck. But he armed those giants. His
astonishing eye for physical reality extended their
outward vision. He, and others like him, also led
science to the inner vision of the Romantics. In
the end that twofold view did indeed create nature
by dreaming up a whole new edifice of natural law.
Yet Tyndall was no fool. He also saw something that
20th-century philosophers would soon tell us. No
man-made edifice of natural law will ever bring us
to absolute truth. He says,
Thus, having exhausted science and reached its very
rim, the real mystery of existence still looms
around us. And thus it will ever loom -- ever
beyond the bourne of man's intellect -- giving the
poets of successive ages just occasion to declare
We are such stuff As dreams are made of,I'm John Lienhard, at the University of
Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive
and our little life Is rounded by a sleep.