Today, a rattlesnake reminds us to see the world
with an open mind. 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.
In 1949, I rode a truck with
a survey crew in central Washington state, up near
the Canadian border. A rattlesnake crossed the dirt
road in front of us. We got out and went after the
unhappy beast with survey rods.
My reaction was shameful in that moment. My pulse
raced. Terror and aggression lay their hold on me,
while I beat the poor snake to death. Rattlers are
standard icons of horror. I didn't react to the
snake. I reacted to the icon.
Rattlers are one kind of pit viper. Pit vipers have
two holes, or pits, on their snouts. The pits look
like nostrils, but they're not. They're just two of
the remarkable features on these adaptable,
determined, and courageous reptiles.
Those pits are fitted with infrared sensors. The
eyes above them see light. The pits see heat
signals. We used to think the pits were for
locating warm-blooded victims. It turns out they
can do much more.
They read a very precise signal. Animals give off
different heat signatures. Those infrared pits
might tell whether the victim is a safe meal or a
rattlesnake eater. They probably protect large
beasts -- like you and me -- from attack.
Mating is serious business for rattlers. They go
miles looking for females. They have to fight other
males on the way. The fight is a wrestling match,
and the loser suffers severe psychological damage.
He loses his will.
Females test an approaching male by taking the male
fight pose. Losers run. Only winners dare to claim
their prize. It really is a case where only the
brave deserve the fair. When mating finally does
occur, it goes on for hours -- even days.
Pit vipers are far more advanced than other snakes.
They're equipped with spare teeth. Their forked
tongue is an enormously sensitive scent sensor.
Unlike lesser snakes, pit vipers stay around to
guard their eggs, once they're laid.
So we hold this ancient emblem of fear up to the
light. We turn him about for a new look. He is,
indeed, more than we thought. He's dangerous --
make no mistake. But study that wild-eyed, fanged
face for function. You find a terrible beauty you
missed the first time.
Here's a picture of a rattler. It says something to
me about the creative process. It's our weakness
when fear limits our vision. It's our
incompleteness that keeps us from seeing him for
what he really is. That rattler reminds us it's
wise to keep looking for beauty in things we're
ready to dismiss as ugly.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds