Engines of Our Ingenuity


No. 1630:
CREATING NATURE

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1630.

Today, nature changes before our eyes. 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 Romantic poets made a very odd claim, one which happens to be closely related to technological change. They repeatedly told us that we create nature by dreaming nature. At first that may sound delusional. But it makes more sense when we think about our response to new technologies.

Imagine that we lived in America in 1850 and were thinking about Hong Kong. We'd gaze out upon our flat horizon and imagine a three-month journey in a sailing ship. By now we've seen the curved horizon from 35,000 feet. Ever since the moon landings, we've regarded Earth as a gossamer blue and white sphere floating in inky black space. And we measure the trip to Hong Kong in hours, not months. So Earth simply isn't the same place it was in 1850.

Of course there must be an objective nature that does not depend on the way we see it. Yet that's not entirely relevant, because, if nature isn't what I actually see, then what credence can I give to the view from my window? Different skeins of experience really do alter what you and I see when we look at the same thing. Why else is my childhood home so small when I go back to it as an adult?

Technology is the factor that most rapidly and dramatically changes what we see when we look at nature. When Galileo turned his new telescope on the moon he made it clear, for the first time, that the moon had a rough surface. Since then, our night sky has no longer included a perfect celestial sphere, but rather a pock-marked rock reflecting the sun. From that small step in human perception flowed a whole new way of looking for, and looking at, reality. It was a major step in creating the methods of modern science and in changing what we expected of science. We catch a glimmer of objective nature in our measuring instruments. But our actions are ultimately shaped by what our mind makes of that glimmer.

Now the Internet pours new images and information into our lives. Never before have we had at hand so much knowledge of nature. Our perception of reality is shifting on so large a scale there's no telling where it's going. Nor can we have any idea how our behavior will change each time we recreate nature within us.

For all practical purposes, our changing perceptions really are changes within nature itself. Still, our belief that nature has some ultimate character, without us to witness it, keeps us honest. It forces us to keep stretching and changing what we see.

The Romantic poet Wordsworth clearly saw how we're inevitably woven into what nature is. In his poem about the wild country surrounding the ruins of Tintern Abbey, he said that,

                ... that blessed mood, Ö
In which the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world,
Is lightened:--that serene and blessed mood,
In which the affections gently lead us on,--
Until, the breath of this corporeal frame
And even the motion of our human blood
Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul:
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.

Those are wonderful lines, but they're also disturbing. To the extent that nature becomes something we create within us, our responsibility within our universe is even larger than we thought.

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

(Theme music)


I provide a greatly expanded version of this episode, along with reference material, in the following talk:
http://www.uh.edu/engines/science&information.htm

For the full text of Wordsworth's poem, Tintern Abbey, see, e.g., http://www.bartleby.com/145/ww138.html


So, what do you see when you look up at the night sky?



The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2001 by John H. Lienhard.