Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1907:
EARLIER THAN WE THINK

by John H. Lienhard

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 created them.

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. He says,

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 understanding.

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 Heat 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 work.

(Theme music)


V. Bush, Science is Not Enough. New York: William Morrow & Company, Inc. 1967. Chapt. X.

One view of time

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