Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 854:
THE TIMES SCIENCE PAGE

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 854.

Today, a refreshing burst of radical creativity. 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 recent issue of the weekly New York Times, Science Section, is stunning. And yet it's typical. It is a happy reminder that the inventive mind is alive and well in America.

The most dramatic piece is about a new MacDonnell-Douglas rocket. It's designed to lift a payload into orbit with a one-stage recoverable rocket. For years we've dropped off two heavy, expensive, rocket boosters on the way into space. Until we can make a rocket so light that fuel is 90 percent of its weight, we'll have to keep dropping off booster stages to get into orbit.

This single rocket, made from light composite materials, might go all the way in one shot. We should be able to get it back and reuse it. Hi-tech electronics will cut the number of controllers needed to fly it from a hundred down to only three. If all this works, space flight will change beyond recognition.

A second item tells about new studies of the ways our human presence has changed the Americas. It's no surprise that our last few generations have affected the environment. We've cut down forests and changed the climate by changing Earth's surface.

But we weren't the first. The myth that American Indians lived in unspoiled nature is wrong. Their hunting changed animal life. They burned off trees to herd game and to clear land for farming. Of course you and I do far more radical things to plant cover. We've changed the coastline by moving inland silt to the sea. But the world we're changing was man-made to begin with.

The third cover article tells about Victoria Elizabeth Foe -- a striking woman, 48 years old with wide-set eyes and fine, strong features. Yet her face betrays an odd fragility. Foe is an independent university scholar and MacArthur fellow who lives from grant to grant. She's no conventional academic.

For years she's studied fruit fly embryology with the care of Mendel, but with modern instruments. She tracks cells through the early stages of embryos. She's learned just where, in the process of cell division, specialized body parts emerge -- where cells start producing nerves or muscle or bone.

Foe has been a quiet rebel, not doing the things other scientists do to get ahead in the world. She works with combined insecurity and tenacity. She's created a unique scientific baseline that guides the work of regular career scientists.

So I'm cheered by this week's Times. All three articles tell of radical change -- a reusable rocket, a new view of our ecology, and a breath of fresh air in scientific work. We're shaking off old constraints. We're learning. And science itself is taking on new life.

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

(Theme music)


Broad, W,J., Liftoff Nears for Lightweight Rocket. The New York Times, SCIENCE TIMES, Tuesday, August 10, 1993, pp. B5-B7.

Stevens, W.K., The Heavy Hand of European Settlement. The New York Times, SCIENCE TIMES, Tuesday, August 10, 1993, pp. B5-B8.

Angier, N., Drawing Big Lessons From Fly Embryology. The New York Times, SCIENCE TIMES, Tuesday, August 10, 1993, pp. B5-B6.

I finished this episode just as the evening news came on TV. In perfect counterpoint I watched the first test flight of the new lightweight rocket. It was an early version, and it flew only a few hundred feet. But it was a success.


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

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