Today, it is earlier than we think. The University
of Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
I've just found Vannever
Bush's book, Science is Not Enough. (Well,
no one thought it was.) But engineer-scientist Bush
was one of the fascinating thinkers of the
mid-twentieth century. I look to him for a new take
on an old idea. This was 1967; Bush was 77 years
old; and, sure enough, his last essay pulls me in.
The title, It is Earlier Than We Think, is
at odds with our thinking. We're constantly told
that, if we don't act now, the chance will be gone!
But Bush, an agnostic, has watched life unfolding
for a long time. Now, as he ponders the future, he
thinks about Pascal's wager. Pascal looked at
believers and non-believers -- opposite sides of a
great gulf. If he views them with scientific
detachment, whom should he bet on? Reason is no
help here. But Pascal decides it's a no-brainer.
Bet on the believers, he says, because there you
have everything to gain and nothing to lose.
Naturally that, by itself, does not satisfy Bush.
But then he takes stock of 1967. Cosmology is just
coming up with the Big Bang Theory. Duke University
has been studying ESP. Biologists are beginning to
see that self-interest, in the long haul, leads to
altruistic behavior and the formation of community.
Bush is not about to join the New Age of the
1960's. But he does see a scientific horizon that's
far more distant, and filled with possibility, than
we'd thought. He sees the pursuit of science
yielding hope, and learning as our human mission.
If we abandon that mission under stress we ...
abandon it forever, for stress will not cease.
Knowledge for the sake of understanding, not merely
to prevail, that is the essence of our being.
Vannevar Bush, once a
computing pioneer, had become America's leading science
advisor. He'd moved in top government circles
(until the disenchantment of the McCarthy years).
Now, he's out of public policy-making, and trying
to put it all in perspective.
He realizes we need to look beyond the horizon. If
we don't achieve goodness and decency today, the
responsibility for doing so remains. If we fail to
create peace and reconciliation now, the need stays
with us. We were then in the terrible Vietnam War
-- fearing that civilization itself was under
threat. Bush writes:
That the threat is now intense is not a reason
to abandon our quest for knowledge. It is a reason
to hold it more tightly, in spite of the need for
action ... There is an added duty, not
inconsistent, not less. It is the duty to so live
that there may be a reason for living, beyond the
mere mechanisms of life. It is the duty to carry
on, under stress, the search for
So, in the end, Bush decides to accept
Pascal's wager -- to bet upon believing. Now, just
this moment (so many years later) an email arrives
from a teacher in Vietnam. He's downloaded our free
Transfer Textbook and he writes, as a friend,
to thank us for sharing knowledge. Suddenly, it's
clear just how right Bush was. It really was much
earlier than we realized -- back then, in 1967.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
V. Bush, Science is Not Enough. New York:
William Morrow & Company, Inc. 1967. Chapt.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H.