Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 600:
WALKING THE BAYOU

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 600.

Today, a parable of change. 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 friend showed up last year and asked us to take in a stray dog. We did. Then change began. I started walking him -- modestly at first, then more aggressively. I began losing weight.

A few months ago we settled on a routine. Every night, we walk the Bayou exercise track. A few months ago, I could hardly do one chin-up. Now I do 30 a night, and I've lost over 30 pounds. The dog comes back panting. My wife looks at me and says, "This is scary. I want old pudgy-John back."

So what am I doing? Is this vanity? Is it health? Is it catharsis? Am I looking for my lost child along the bayou? Well, maybe. But one thing I'm certainly looking for is change.

I have less capacity for change than I'd like to think. Most of us do. And that's too bad, because a capacity for change is the mark of a creative person. George Foreman astonished us all with his boxing comeback at the age of forty-three. That was a triumph of the head as much as a triumph of the body. Carl Lewis set the 100-meter world record when he was thirty. What are my capacities for change and rebirth at twice his age?

So I walk the quiet bayou and contemplate stories of change. When he was forty, Albert Schweitzer was an organist/musicologist. He was the great authority on Bach. Then he gave all that up to study medicine. He became a great humanitarian, expert on tropical disease, and sometimes theologian.

J. Willard Gibbs first designed railroad equipment. He took up science in his mid-thirties. He underwent little outward change. He lived his whole life in the same New Haven house. But he laid the very foundations of three scientific fields. He was just my age when he created the subject of statistical mechanics. That great agent of change gave Einstein, Schrödinger, and Heisenberg the vehicle by which they altered physics forever.

Exercise is clearly just a glint of real change. It's a contemplation object. It's only a reminder that the alternative to change is death. But engaging change is a process of finding our capacities, facing danger, and finally claiming life.

I have no idea where change will take me. I don't especially care. If I'm alert to possibility and risk, and confined only by principle, change will take me to the right place. But my wife is right. Change is dangerous, and it's always irreversible.

So, my good-humored dog -- my odd agent of change -- walks the dark bayou with me; and I ponder the same question you face. It is, what possibility will I see today? What will I do with it? And will I have the courage to seize it -- before it blows away like summer smoke?

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

(Theme music)


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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