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