Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1025:
OF FACTS AND TRUTHS

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1025.

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 truth's enemy?

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 irrational.

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 Dulcinea!"

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 work.

(Theme music)


I am grateful to Judy Myers, UH Library, for suggesting that the Quixote quote might be the basis for an episode.



Photo Property of John Lienhard

In which Quixote's Relatives Convince the Padre that Quixote is Mad


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

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