Today, new sciences, new languages. 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.
Instruments have a rhetorical
purpose, say Hankins and Silverman in their book
Instruments and the Imagination. That's because
the output of instruments, like language itself, mediates
between our minds and the world around us.
Observational science was taking its modern form in the
seventeenth century. We had new instruments and were
learning their new visual languages. Philosophers had
already been asking,
"Do words truly represent anything, or are they just a misleading human construct?" John
Locke asked whether a microscope image was a reality or
an artifact of the instrument. Thomas Hobbes called the
new air pump "a dangerous chimera."
Scientific instruments were reviving old concerns about
words. Many people believed that God had given Adam the
true and accurate language in Eden, but those words had
been corrupted upon the Tower of Babel. About the time
Galileo died, Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher was
trying to reconstruct that original language.
Kircher, and then Leibnitz, struggled to rediscover words
that would express the true essence of things. English
scientist John Wilkins, who worked on the problem, also
wrote about intelligent beings on the moon. He worried
about their language.
It reminds us of NASA, firing the Pioneer 10
probe into deep space. They faced the real problem of
inventing universal symbols to identify Earth and the
human species that'd fired the rocket.
Five hundred years ago, new symbols and images began
replacing words. A generation after Gutenberg, printers
began putting accurate drawings of plants and animals in
books. And books were now reaching everyone. Before long,
simple woodcuts gave way to three-dimensional
perspective, often created by mechanical means. In the
seventeenth century, people expected scientific books to
have sophisticated drawings in them.
The eighteenth century brought a new twist: the
mathematical graph. In the seventeen-thirties, a German
scientist named Lambert drew tables with outdoor
temperatures arranged in columns. The dates when they'd
occurred were listed in rows. The result was a picture of
temperature varying with time. A few years later, Lambert
made the leap to the sort of graph with lines on
coordinates that we find in every newspaper. That was
really a new way of seeing, and it took another century
to digest it. But today every schoolchild takes graphs
The search for transcendent languages goes on. Maybe we
seek new Internet iconographies -- maybe new forms of
mathematics. We need ways to speak to one another about a
universe that would've been completely alien in our
great-grandparents' day. Creating languages to reflect
increasingly counterintuitive realities is no longer just
a philosophical riddle. It has become the simple
practical problem of telling one another the truth of
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where
we're interested in the way inventive minds work.