Engines of Our Ingenuity


No. 1651:
SPECIFICITY AND SEPTEMBER 11th

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1651.

Today, six weeks later, we think about specificity. 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.

How terribly important it is to stay in contact with the specific things underlying any generalization! The best mathematicians work outward from the specific thing to create ever broader statements. Yet, mathematics is fueled by its special cases.

I write this program six weeks after the dark day of September 11th. That day has gone in and out of focus for me, as it surely has for you. Six thousand deaths is far too abstract a thing for any of us to deal with. It's only as we've all been caught in the widening circle of specific effects that it's become real.

Piece by piece, we've learned that a friend lost a relative, that someone we know escaped death -- or did not. We find that a company we deal with has suddenly ceased to exist. An event is cancelled; a friend behaves strangely. It is only as those specific instances reach us that such an event can take on reality.

Thirteen days after the attacks, my wife and I walked down into lower Manhattan -- from Washington Park to Canal Street and then to the cordoned-off region, a half-mile further south. We saw brave New Yorkers putting one foot in front of the other -- opening their shops, walking their dogs, hawking their wares, recreating a remembered reality.

Teddy Bear Memorial Even then, my jolt of specificity came later still. I'd taken some pictures, mostly of slapdash memorials that had gone up that Tuesday evening and had grown ever since. Once I loaded them into my computer, I saw on the screen what'd gone by in a blur at the time. A fifteen-foot diameter circle at Canal Street looked like no more than a mess of remnants and candle wax. Now the specificity emerges on my screen: two teddy bears (why teddy bears?) bouquets of flowers, images of the Virgin, T-shirts (whose, I wonder). I blow up pictures of the steel mesh fence around Washington Park and see the individual flowers, flags, Hawaiian leis, and, always, the candles.

Studious young man The pictures within the pictures suddenly have faces! A studious young man. A woman smiling her joy of living. A wise cleric once spoke of the "sin of a lack of specificity." Any fool can love humankind, he pointed out. The trick is to love the salesman who makes a cold call while you're eating supper. Any one can grieve a "tragic loss of life." But then we read the flyer on a lamppost: "This is my daughter. She worked on the 67th floor. Have you seen her?"

Like a good mathematician, I try to work my way outward from that afternoon in lower Manhattan. But it'll be a long time before I can create my universal field theory of arrested life. I keep seeing that photo of the studious young man, and I think about the people who put it there. As far as I yet can see, they put it there so that I would know him. They put it there so that I -- specifically -- would remember that he once lived. And so I shall.

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 © 1988-2001 by John H. Lienhard.