Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1454:
JUXTAPOSITION AND CONTRADICTION

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1454.

Today, a thought about juxtaposition and contradictions. 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.

Long ago, a scientist caught me off guard by saying he believed the literal truth of Genesis. But he also accepted evolution and modern geology. It took me years to make sense of that. Now I see that science tells me what happened, while Genesis helps me to make sense of it.

Our lives are loaded with side-by-side contradictions. Do I warp a child's sense of reality when I speak of Santa Claus? I doubt it. The child soon enough looks back and sees Santa as the way she learned the real power of generosity.

Orion is a cluster of stars in which I see the giant hunter of myth. Now the Hubble telescope looks into one star of Orion's sword and shows us a glorious swirling nebula. I know perfectly well that Orion is more than a simple picture painted by stars in one plane of the heavens. But a ghostly hunter, chasing the Pleiades across eternal night, gives it another layer of meaning nonetheless.

When contradictory facts move into close juxtaposition, one of two things happens. If one fact proves wrong, then that's that. But sometimes the contradiction harbors two totally different faces of the same deeper truth. The opposing forces both gain in validity as they converge, and, finally, the universe changes.

Take the nature of light: For two centuries Huygens's wave theory and Newton's corpuscular theory both answered questions about light. The whole business got really frustrating when Planck explained how the energy of light is spread among its wavelengths. By then, the wave theory was ascendant, and he upset the apple cart by imagining a new corpuscle called a photon.

It wasn't till the late 1920s that modern quantum mechanics violated all intuition by telling us that material particles reduce to mere waves of probability. Only when we carried the contradictory descriptions to their full validity, and then juxtaposed them, could we make sense of light.

Science is filled with stories like that. For centuries, competing explanations of heat gained validity. Heat was an invisible fluid that flowed from hot bodies to cold ones -- or was it some sort of stored motion in a material? Only after we had an atomic theory could the principle of energy conservation emerge. When it did, both explanations lingered as shadows of a more complex truth.

The Great Nebula in Orion. Courtesy NASA Hubble Telescope Of course, science is simple stuff alongside the contradictions of human relationships. Which of us doesn't see kindness and meanness, generosity and greed, all juxtaposed in the people we know? The world changes in the rare moments when we make sense of those opposites. So look for contradiction. Out of it, despair can turn to hope. A tiny glint of Orion's sword can open into a vast array of stars and dust, thousands of light years away from the hard earth upon which you and I spend our days.

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

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The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1999 by John H. Lienhard.