Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1095x:

by John H. Lienhard

(This episode was never recorded. There is no audio for it.)

Today, I'm briefly tempted to give up hope in the human race. 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.

7:35 in the evening of February 15, 1996, and I'm walking my dogs in the neighborhood. Suddenly, a terrible sound of acceleration behind me. I take two steps to the right and am hit squarely by a speeding car. It went up on the grass to get me. I lie on the ground with two broken legs -- the anonymous victim of a mindless, brutal attack.

Worse than the smashed bones is my broken innocence -- having to admit that such raw and undistilled evil exists. If my creative powers were ever put to the test, they are put to the test here. Who can live in a world which contains such vicious, random evil?

Within a minute, the answer to that question begins unfolding. A Good Samaritan passing in his car stops to give aid. The attacking car had lurched by him as it drove off the grass. This was a not a situation anyone would want to be mixed up in. But he stops, calls for help and does what he can for me. The fire department is there in five minutes, the police in six. Society closes in.

Thirty minutes after impact, I'm in the best trauma center in the world, IV's running. I'm in the center of the controlled chaos where the undoing of evil begins. Twelve hours later, a team of surgeons has done a stunning feat of engineering on my most damaged leg. They've run a titanium shaft through the ten or so broken fragments of my tibia. They've left me with a couple of minor incisions -- no cast, not even any bandages to speak of. It seems impossible.

Even before surgery, friends close in on me and on my wife. The old canard, "What can I do to help?" takes on new meaning. People invent answers to that question -- invent means for easing the trouble that's entered our lives. Day five: I have a pulmonary embolism, kicked loose by the trauma. A complex 3-D scan shows that blood isn't reaching part of my lungs to pick up oxygen. I'm under a new threat.

Within days, a well-choreographed team effort has that under control as well. Meanwhile friends keep converging. My students visit the hospital. Nurses, therapists and orderlies work with authentic concern for my well-being. Doctors treat me with candor and intelligence.

My friends are all embarrassed to ask one key question: "Were your dogs hurt?" One was bruised and spent a night with the vet, I explain. I want to shout, "Of course that question is worth asking!" This whole business is about the value of life: my life, the dogs' lives, your lives -- in a world seemingly poised to forget the primacy of life.

So, beyond the thin veneer of pure evil that brought me down is a revelation. It is the synchronization of a creative, inventive society that does care about its members. Evil is there, all right, but evil is only veneer. I've seen the core of my people -- of my society -- and it is good. In the end, I am very proud to be a member of the human species.

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

(Theme music)

After writing this episode, I decided not to air it but simply to leave it in the file of Engines episodes.

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1998 by John H. Lienhard.

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