Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1174:
AN INTELLECTUAL LEGACY

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1174.

Today, more on the matter of heredity or environment. 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.

We hear a lot about nature vs. nurture. Are we formed genetically or by surroundings? Many families offer grist for that mill. Did Bach's children inherit their father's ability or were they just raised with the sound of music? Four generations of Bernoullis touched all of science and math. John and Abigail Adams's legacy included two presidents, an ambassador, and a great writer.

Let's follow one such family through four generations. We begin with an 18th-century English cobbler, John Boole -- an unschooled tradesman who loved to think. He taught himself Greek and read the classics in his spare time. He also built telescopes. At one point he hung a sign in his shop window:

Anyone who wishes to view the works of God in a spirit of reverence is invited to come in and look through my telescope.

John's son George was a prodigy. At 14 he published a translation of a Greek poem. He learned math on his own and, in 1844, won the Royal Society's gold medal in math. He's famous for his work on what we call Boolean logic -- the logic of your computer today.

In 1855 Boole married Mary Everest, an extremely bright woman and niece of the geographer that Mt. Everest was named for. George died early of pneumonia and left 32-year-old Mary with five daughters and no income. She managed to land a post as a librarian and occasional teacher of mathematics at Queen's College in London.

Mary diligently saw to the nurture of her daughters. She sold George's gold medal to buy a harmonium so they could have music. That act honored everything George had stood for, and it worked. One daughter became a chemistry teacher in a medical college. Another was a noted novelist. A third daughter was a homemaker who studied the geometry of hyperspace in her spare time. She ultimately won an honorary degree at Germany's University of Gronigen.

Another daughter gave birth to a son who has been a presence in every aspect of my own work. He was Geoffrey Ingram Taylor, better known as G.I. Taylor. No one works long with fluid flow, turbulence, applied mechanics, the action of micro-organisms, or stability theory without reading fundamentals written by Taylor.

Yet Taylor, like everyone in that remarkable family, did nothing to aggrandize himself. His work was his pleasure. Long ago a graduate student of mine nerved himself up to write Taylor for advice on his problem. He got back a handwritten letter in which Taylor expressed his simple joy in the beauty of the phenomenon.

Finally, for all his fine work, Taylor was given that very same gold medal his grandmother had once sold. And we suddenly realize: Mary Boole hadn't really given up the medal at all. She'd simply reinvested it. Where genetics rides in all this, who can say? But the powerful presence of nurture is unmistakable.

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

(Theme music)


Batchelor, G., The Life and Legacy of G. I. Taylor. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

For more on G. I. Taylor's aunt, amateur mathematician Alice Boole Stott, see Episode 880.

To provide an indication of the kind of minds this family produced, I offer a letter, written to John Huang in 1966. Dr. Huang was then doing his PhD dissertation on the dynamics and breakup of moving liquid sheets. He had written to G. I. Taylor with some questions. This is the reply he received. Note the exquisit detail, insight, and fascination that Taylor invests in this note to a student he had never met.

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

Previous Episode | Search Episodes | Index | Home | Next Episode