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.