Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1058:
VISUALIZING SPACE

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1058.

Today, a notion about why education seems to be in chaos. 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.

People ask if education is going downhill. It isn't really, but something is out of tune. The way students think is slipping away from teachers. A fine example is the way we visualize things. Watching TV images has become like falling into space. We wheel and turn in three dimensions, seeing an object as though we were some mad dervish swirling above it, below it, around it.

We couldn't have dreamt those displays 40 years ago. Now we've built the mathematical logic behind geometry and perspective into our machines. Once we used drafting to translate the pictures in our mind into pictures on paper. Now we build the picture on a computer screen without first seeing it in our heads.

Eight hundred years ago medieval masons built Gothic cathedrals without working drawings. They translated a mental vision into glorious structure without its ever touching paper -- much less a computer screen. Then, in 1525, Albrecht Dürer showed how to use the new Italian rules of perspective to create pictures mechanically. Since then we've gone through refined mechanical drawing, camera obscuras, photography, television -- until we live in a world where every kind of design is computer-aided.

Today's designers need to do very little mental construction. Instead, they call up finished images on 2-D screens. When that happens, the gains are so great that we forget to count the cost.

Creative thought means building in our minds. That takes many forms. We can build strings of logic or poetic images. We can sift and rearrange recollection. We can construct every kind of relation among objects or shapes or quantities. We can do what the computer has learned to do. But we've also been doing far more.

For millennia, we had to use that spatial ability. That's meant much more than just drafting in our minds. But what's to become of generations that've never formed the habit of visualizing -- to math students who've never built graphs in their heads.

My mother once did mental miracles with crochet needles. I'd watch 3-dimensional flowers rising up on her bedspreads. Now you can buy a computer program for mapping quilts.

Computers and all they do for us! Spatial thinking is only one piece of it. Computers are here to stay, and thank God for them! The question isn't whether to take them up. We'd be crazy not to. But, make no mistake, they're changing the way we think.

So: education is in disarry. Our thinking is moving away from the models of thought that schools are based on. And that situation can only get worse in the short term. The new electronic media are leaving a great vacuum. And it is a vacuum that we have not yet figured out how to fill.

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

(Theme music)


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