Today, we ask, "What's the problem?" The University
of Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
A colleague and I were
talking about science literacy just now, and he
wondered out loud, "Where do you think the public
gets hung up on understanding science?" It was a
useful question. We need to find the roadblock.
The general public understands a great deal -- how
the greenhouse effect works, how the solar system
moves, how electric circuits or plumbing work.
Books like How Things Work are popular and
they're understandable. Most people I know are
aware that dinosaurs vanished long before humans
arrived. They have some idea of what Special
Relativity is. They know what the Uncertainty
Principle tells us about the world we live in.
Maybe we're less illiterate than we thought! And
yet, a huge problem does lie just outside the sort
of scientific toolkit I've been describing. The
first great hurdle any of us face in learning
engineering or science is using mathematics to
Years ago, a young algebra student, justly proud of
having straight A's in the subject, told me, "I
just love algebra. The only part I can't stand are
those story problems." Algebra was, for him, only a
system -- rather like solitaire. It existed only as
a kind of mental exercise machine.
Story problems are the part of algebra where you
convert a physical reality into a form that can be
described in objective terms. And that
objectification of reality is what separates
science. Emily Dickinson understood very well when
The Brain is wider than the sky,
For put them side by side,
The one the other will include
With ease, and you beside.
If, say, you and I hope to harness the sun's
energy, we need to know a lot about that wide sky.
We need to put our brains to it -- translate it
into wavelengths, laws of radiation, vapor
pressures, equations of fluid flow. We need to
formulate and solve a very difficult story problem.
Once we've done that, Dickinson will still be
there, I promise you. And she'll be smiling, too.
But, before we tackle anything so complex, we need
to begin with the simple stuff: How to buy gas by
the liter and pay for it in Euros; how to decide
how many baby aspirin make up an adult half-gram
dose; how to serve four people using a recipe for
Science literacy is not just knowing Newton's law,
F = m·a. Those are words that
anyone can recite. Science literacy is using the
law to find out how fast an object will hit the
ground when it's been dropped from a
The brain must be "wider than the sky." The
down-to-earth Emily Dickinson knew perfectly well
that there was more to the blue sky than basking in
sentiment. Too much is there. The brain has to be
literate -- it has to take nature seriously. We
need to abstract nature, to do the mathematics, to
see the full beauty of it.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
My thanks to Lewis Wheeler, UH Mech. Engr. Dept., for
The full text of the Emily Dickinson poem is as
The Brain - is wider than the Sky -
For - put them side by side -
The one the other will contain
With ease - and You - beside -
The Brain is deeper than the sea -
For - hold them - Blue to Blue -
The one the other will absorb -
As Sponges - Buckets - do -
The Brain is just the weight of God -
For - Heft them - Pound for Pound -
And they will differ - if they do -
As Syllable from Sound -
(Photo by John Lienhard)
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H.