Today, 1912 and summer. 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 year is 1912: Marcel
Duchamp has just painted his Nude Descending a
Staircase; Rupert Brooke has written a poem
about the village of Grantchester; and Niels Bohr
has described electron orbits that're consistent
with Planck's new quantum theory. Together, they
show us a world lurching under our feet
Planck and Einstein had set the stage. Planck found
he could explain the radiation spectrum by assuming
energy can change only in quantum jumps, and
Einstein had begun writing his papers on
When Bohr lent legitimacy to quantum
mechanics, time, space, matter, and energy began
flowing together like spilled paints. They could no
more be put back the way they'd been than Humpty
Dumpty could. All we'd ever tried to call real
began coming apart.
Duchamp's nude, who was no nude at all, also
rearranged reality. She was a cinematic series of
images of a highly abstracted human figure -- not
as a camera would catch her, but broken into cubist
fragments. It is as though we saw a nude suddenly
coming down the stairs to join our party. Out of
embarrassment, we glimpse her only in a series of
blinks, from the corner of one eye. She is no
longer an image at all. She's an event,
smeared in time and space, just as photons and
electrons were being smeared.
So our dizzying deconstructions continued
throughout the twentieth century. And, in May of
1912, Rupert Brooke heard the sigh of that same
Zeitgeist as he sat in a Berlin café,
thinking about summer and his home in Grantchester,
near Cambridge. He wrote,
... would I were
In Grantchester, in Grantchester!
Some, it may be, can get in touch
With Nature there, or Earth, or such.
I only know that you may lie
Day long and watch the Cambridge sky,
And, flower-lulled in sleepy grass,
Hear the cool lapse of hours pass,
Until the centuries blend and blur
In Grantchester, in Grantchester.
Say, is there Beauty yet to find?
And Certainty? and Quiet kind?
Deep meadows yet, for to forget
The lies, and truths, and pain?Ö oh! yet
Stands the Church clock at ten to three?
And is there honey still for tea?
Time did blur, and ten-to-three became an
instant too precise to specify. Brooke summoned up
an afternoon so lovely that a French impressionist
might've painted it. But, by then, the
impressionists had also exhausted themselves with
the beauty of summer skies. Artists had moved on to
abstract forms -- blurring time and space just as
surely as Einstein and Planck had.
Now, another lovely summer is beginning in Houston.
Another century is beginning. I look at the puff of
white clouds, green grass, and the cool lapse of
hours -- and my century seems to blend and blur
with Rupert Brooke's. How odd that a world of
corporeal reality still lingers out there --
despite the past century of rearranging clouds and
time, space and sunshine.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
For more on Duchamp, see: Making Sense of Duchamp.
For the full text of Rupert Brooke's poem, see:
The Old Vicarage, Granchester
For elementary discussions of the Bohr Atom,
This website on the subject.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H.