Today, let's see how machines transcend themselves.
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.
The word system
is one that keeps growing in importance. A system
is a set of parts which accomplish something by
relating to one other. Drive a bolt through a pair
of blades and the three parts form a system we call
scissors. As a scissors they're more than two
blades and bolt. Systems have meaning beyond their
As machines grow more complex, their systemic
character grows more subtle and it expands outward.
An automobile engine is large and complex. But it
isn't very meaningful until it joins the radiator,
transmission, brakes, suspension and everything
else that forms a car. And the system doesn't stop
there. Cars interact with life around them.
Questions of highways, gas pumps, service, air
quality, parking, safety, all come back to
So the parts of an engine make up a system that
reaches beyond the engine, beyond the car, even
beyond their obvious infrastructure. Before they're
done, cars reshape city layout, affect home design,
and rescale the size of families.
As the scope of our systems increases, something
else changes as well. The actual members of a given
system may differ from one day to the next. In 1850
the city of Houston was a completely different
assembly of buildings, people, and infrastructure
than it is now. Yet the system we call Houston
endures. Far from being a mere assembly of parts, a
system is a mutating relationship among the
inconstant parts that make it up.
As the system increases in scope from scissors to
car to city, the interrelation among parts becomes
far more important than the parts themselves.
Engineers have to focus as intently on those
relationships as they once focused on parts. And a
new term, systems engineering, is
creeping into our vocabulary.
A few years back, some of my engineering colleagues
joined with historians, economists, philosophers,
and business people in an ad hoc Systems Seminar. I
guess it's no surprise they were soon talking about
Gaia. Gaia is what we call the biosphere when we
see it as a single living system -- a single
fragile spherical shell of animal, plant and
bacterial life surrounding Earth. Since all life is
interdependent, it forms one living being. To deal
with our own presence in the environment, we have
to recognize the one system we all belong to.
But there we're in trouble. Who can grasp the
totality of that one vast system from inside it? If
we try to reach all the way from scissors to Gaia
we founder on vague generalities. Instead, we have
to move outward, step by step, away from specific
parts we understand. That learning process is the
hardest problem engineers face today, whether we're
making scissors, building the internet, or tackling
the most essential task of all -- caring for Gaia.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds