Today, we wonder what's real and what's imaginary.
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.
I recently heard Ken
Torrance from Cornell University talk about his
work on computer graphics. He created simple scenes
-- a crib in a room, a jar on a table. He wrote the
complicated equations for the reflection and
diffusion of light. To illuminate his scenes, he
let a computer chew through these terrible
equations until it cast light in the same way as a
lamp or the sun.
You've seen computer pictures in the movies, but
his were much better. Colors reflected just the way
they should. They mixed perfectly in the shadows.
These pictures had the beauty and accuracy of a
Dutch master. When Torrance finished, I didn't know
whether I was looking at a picture or the thing
itself. These weren't just artists' creations.
Torrance had written the rules of nature, and then
let the computer obey those rules. In a sense, he'd
told the computer how to recreate the actual scenes
by obeying the rules of nature.
Of course, it's not easy to parse reality into the
language of computers. Yet when we do, the results
aren't just stunning, they're disorienting as well.
Students of fluid flow struggle to make their
computers tell them how fluids move over airfoils,
through tubes, past turbine blades. As computers
lead us through the tortuous slow-motion swirls of
water and air, we sometimes wonder whether we're
seeing reality or the imaginings of a lunatic.
The images we create on computers can be more
accurate than our imperfect attempts to isolate
processes in the laboratory. While the computer's
role in our lives expands faster than we know, its
users adopt the language of people dealing with
real things. They speak of "doing numerical
experiments" when they isolate processes on the
machine. They're disarmingly casual about
separating computer and laboratory data. And the
computer takes a larger and larger role as a
partner in human "decision-making."
We're no longer sure whether we're looking at a
picture created by an artist, a camera, or a
computer. The computer can make the sound of a
concert grand piano that will fool me. As the
computer speaks to our senses as well as to our
minds, we start having trouble finding the line
between realities of the machine and realities
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds