Today, we try to get beyond facts to the truth. 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.
"Facts are the enemy of
truth!" cries Don Quixote de la Mancha. And I
wonder, is this the madness of Quixote or
Cervantes's inspiration? Can facts really be
When Don Quixote meets the coarse harlot, Aldonza,
he declares she is his Lady Dulcinea, the virgin
queen of his affections. Aldonza laughs at him, but
Quixote continues his adoration, flatly ignoring
every obvious fact of her squalid life.
And this engineer is reminded of atoms in a gas.
When individual atoms collide, they bounce off one
another's force fields with no frictional loss
whatever. Reverse their velocities, and they'll
experience the collision with perfect reversed
motion. Time has no direction for moving atoms.
Nothing ever runs down.
The gross aggregate motion of atoms isn't like that
at all. Fill a room with hot, fast-moving atoms on
one side and cold, slow-moving atoms on the other.
Then wait. Soon atoms everywhere in the room move
with the same lukewarm mean velocity. That
averaging-out sets the direction of time. Things go
downhill. Nothing can reverse the trend in large
groups of atoms.
Scientists have tried for over a century to predict
gross degradation from perfect micro-behavior. As
long as they stay with the facts, they only come
close. At some point they have to introduce
assumptions -- compelling, perhaps, but also
Facts aren't adequate to explain how irrational
perfection lies at the root of imperfect Aldonza.
Facts have always misled us. The obvious fact that
the sun circles our stationary earth -- the obvious
fact of a flat horizon. The fact of life and the
fact of death surely mislead us in odd ways.
I have my own stake in all this. I've worked all my
life as an experimentalist -- a gleaner of facts.
Now I work more with history than with the science
of heat. But in history as well, facts are my
primary medium. Yet in both areas, unprocessed
facts are truth's enemy. Treat facts with cool
detachment and they will tell us nothing. Facts
taken at face value deceive us every time.
In the end, Quixote's family hauls him in and
subjects him to the cure. When they force him to
accept the obvious facts, it kills him. Aldonza
approaches his deathbed. In his defeat, Quixote
calls her Aldonza. "No," she says, "my name is
She has, at last, found the truth -- the perfection
-- that contradicts the facts. If Quixote's madness
didn't redeem him, it did, at least, redeem her. So
I love facts, I collect facts. But I know that
facts can be treacherous. Like Aldonza, I will only
be served by facts when I reprocess them -- when I
find the subtle truth that makes them far more than
they seem to be.
I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds