Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1806:
DISASTER

by John H. Lienhard

Today, disaster. 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.

I've been thumbing through Roger Smith's 1992 book on Catastrophes and Disasters. It's really sobering to see what the great calamities have done to us through history.

The smallest section is on epidemics. Smith lists only three illnesses, but nothing else touches them for sheer destruction. They are: bubonic plague, WW-I influenza, and AIDS. We don't have accurate numbers for the fourteenth-century plague but, by some estimates, it killed a third of the people in Europe and Asia.

The influenza epidemic is oddly minimized in our minds — perhaps because we now live with, and survive, all kinds of flu. It broke out during the last days of WW-I, and killed around twenty million people by 1920. Third on the list is the AIDS pandemic. At this writing, it has killed almost as many people as the influenza epidemic did, and it's certain to surpass it.

All this might suggest that biological warfare threatens comparable damage. However, it's harder than one may think to create exact conditions in a disease and its host, needed to start an epidemic. And we've enormously improved our ability to combat disease. Witness the speed with which we brought SARS under control.

Now and then storms and floods do spectacular damage. The earliest one we know about occurred when an inlet from the Mediterranean broke through into what's now the Black Sea. That was 7500 years ago — maybe the same flood mentioned in Genesis. It increased the sea's area by a third, and it killed a lot of people

Other floods and storms have had terrible effects. America's worst, the Galveston Flood, caused six thousand deaths. But it was small potatoes compared to repeated floods of China's Yellow River. They've killed as many as a million people at once.

Most of the famous disasters — the Titanic, the Chicago Fire, and shuttle explosions — were small in comparison. But the loss of a space shuttle does for us what the influenza epidemic can no longer do. It brings loss down to individuals. It puts a human face upon the vastness of human suffering.

Missing from the book are war and genocide. They are right up there with the great epidemics — the Holocaust, the Nazi murder of Slavic peoples, and Stalin's murder of his own people. There's nothing about the Khmer Rouge or the Armenian slaughter. Nor does the book deal with direct death in war, or bombed civilians.

It all grows too large to grasp. A friend in a car accident is real; Anne Frank is real. Millions-of-strangers is too abstract for anyone's mind to digest. That's especially clear when we read the section on mega-deaths by famine. You or I would do everything in our power to save one of those lives. But a million?

So this book is grim at first. Then we realize it's about ourselves. We're all going to die when we don't expect to, whether by heart attack or hurricane hardly matters. Either way, each hour of life is a gift to enjoy, before the tornado strikes.

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

(Theme music)


R. Smith, Catastrophes and Disasters. New York: Chambers, 1992.

UH economist Tom deGregori deals extensively with our capability for anticipating and countering famine, disease, and other natural disaster. See, e.g.: T. R. deGregori, Bountiful Harvest: Technology, Food Safety, and the Environment. Washington, DC: Kato Institute, 2002 (This is a new edition of Agriculture and Modern Technology: A Defense. Iowa State Press: a Blackwell Pub. Co. 2001.)


1881 cyclone in New Ulm, MN
Artist's image of a cyclone moving through New Ulm, MN, July 16, 1881,
(From Frank Leslie's Illustrated Magazine, August 6, 1881)

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H. Lienhard.