Today, we close a circle. 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.
Weave a circle round
And close your eyes with holy dread.
... says Coleridge in his poem Kubla Khan. He's talking
about the need to hold our creative daemon at bay within
us. The idea of circling something so that we might
possess it is ancient.
When I visited the Kremlin back in the Cold War days, I
felt compelled to walk all the way around its outer wall.
Once I did that, the Kremlin would be mine.
Crater Lake in Oregon is like that. The thirty-six mile
trail around it is a hard day's walk. I haven't done that
exercise, but friends have. The Lake seems to say,
"You do not know me until you have circled me."
Circling is odd business. Imagine canoeing near a large
whirlpool. Stop and let the canoe drift. It stays pointed
in the same direction as it circles the center. You're
back where you began without having turned at all. It's
as though nothing happened. But that gentle lap required
intense whirling within the pool.
Toward the end of their historic globe-girdling voyage,
Magellan's crew reached West Africa. There, Portuguese
settlers told them it was Wednesday. But they'd kept
track of time and were sure it was Thursday. No one board
had thought about date lines.
They had yet to see how closing the circle around Earth
brought mischief with it.
Engineers deal with these issues all the time. They will,
for example, trace processes within a hot air engine. As
the piston moves up and down the air is first compressed,
then heated, then further expanded, then cooled. Finally,
it's right back where it started. One might think that
nothing had happened.
But in the larger world, outside the cylinder, heat has
been supplied, work has been done,
and low grade heat has been rejected. The external world
has been radically changed.
At lunchtime, last week, a friend observed that many
people, sensitized by the events of September 11th, have
taken to using the expression ground zero when
they mean to say square one. Square one
evokes a Monopoly board where, each time you close the
loop, you leave Vermont Street and the Boardwalk changed.
Perhaps that verbal slip reflects our aching awareness
that ground zero in Manhattan may finally be put right,
but the world surrounding it can never be the same.
When we close the circle, we alter human history. That's
true as we close a path within an electrical, magnetic,
thermal, or fluid field. Close the circle upon any skein
of human events and then look around you. T.S. Eliot wrote,
And we read the disturbing undercurrent of
those lines. For, even if our starting place looks the
same, we close the journey upon a world permanently, and
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where
we're interested in the way inventive minds work.