Today, science and change. 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.
In the summer of 1922, Columbia University gathered in noted
technical people to teach a course on science in everyday life. Our world was being
transformed in a tinderbox reaction between radically new sciences and furiously
inventive technology. They use the word science as an umbrella term for both science
and technology as we understand them.
Sixteen of the lectures have been published in a book titled Science Remaking the World.
They deal with coal tar, epidemiology, gasoline ... The stress always falls on the fancy
word science, and some articles do deal with electrons or evolution. But the concern is
with a world being rebuilt by technology.
The authors are intensely aware of change. They try to understand the perfect storm swirling
about them, just as you and I try to understand the where today's information explosion is
Example, a chapter on tuberculosis lists the top six killer diseases. Tuberculosis had been
number one, in 1900. But it's now dropped to third place, while heart disease has risen from
third to first. Cancer first appeared on the list in 1920 and kidney diseases are also gaining
on us. As water quality improves, number three killer, diarrhea and enteritis, drops off the list.
Two articles echo loudly today. The writer on gasoline (which he
still spells as gasolene) observes that there's not enough petroleum to go around. He suggests
two possible alternatives when it runs out -- shale oil and alcohol. (Remember, this was almost
a century ago.) He also remarks that "No schools could teach mechanics as widely and practically as the auto has."
That was still true when I was young; but we now no longer look inside
our cars the way we once did.
We also might take a page today from the article on evolution. In one section, the writer talks
about practical applications in agriculture. He shows how we use evolutionary breeding of plants
in adapting them to disease and environment. In another, he talks about the way evolution can
promote the development of a scientific spirit. He quotes this fine remark by Emerson:
God offers to every mind its choice between truth and repose. ... He in whom the
love of repose predominates will accept the first creed, the first philosophy,
the first political party he meets. ... He in whom the love of truth dominates
... will abstain from dogmatism.
And so the issues that haunt us today have been alive for a long time. They've shifted and modulated,
but they're still there. What we read is no simple boosterism. The authors were as painfully aware
of the dangers and difficulties that followed technology then, as we must be now. The editors conclude
that "Exact knowledge and faithful interpretations of science," bring with them "large obligations."
-- that "Modern science is dangerous."
And so it remains today. That threatening but wonderful genie is still loose. He hovers about us now,
just as he did in 1922.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Science Remaking the World. (Otis W. Caldwell and Edwin E. Slosson, eds.) (Garden City, NY:
Garden City Pub. Co., Inc., 1922/1923). I am grateful to Sims McCutchan and Margaret Culbertson for
giving me this very revealing old book.
For more on the temper of this period, see: J. H. Lienhard, Inventing Modern: Growing up with X-Rays,
Skyscrapers, and Tailfins. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).
Images from the book: Left, a hanging chair calorimeter; Right, the first oil well.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2005 by John H.