Today, one of these is true. 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.
Talking day after day, about the saga of human ingenuity
harbors a danger. Ingenuity is unexpected. It is, by its nature, a surprise when
we tell of it. And we hunger for surprise. So we're constantly tempted by stories
of things that might be true, things we wish were true -- things that are almost
surely not true.
We told one another about flying machines long before flying machines existed.
But we also tell stories about time machines when we don't really expect one
will ever be made. We share our imaginings. We write fiction novels.
And all because we so crave to be surprised. Perhaps, if I offer a short list of
things that I'm certain are nonsense, you'll see what I mean.
I've mentioned many of these on air before. And each has cost me angry letters
from the small set of listeners who believe it to be true. I'm confident in each
disbelief on my list. And yet, there is a catch. Here's my short list:
Perpetual motion is impossible. Sasquatch is a creature
of our imaginations. So too is the Loch Ness Monster. Amelia Earhart
was not captured by the Japanese, nor did she survive her disappearance at sea. The
World Trade Center was not taken down by preset charges. JFK was killed by a lone gunman.
The Bermuda Triangle offers no special dangers. There are no aliens in area 51.
UFO sightings are all misinterpretations of commonplace sights. Alien abduction
stories are fantasies. Ghosts of the dead do not communicate
with us. The human species was not created without biological
antecedents. Time travel will not be invented at some future date. Nor will we ever
travel at speeds exceeding the velocity of light. And the NASA moon landing did not
take place in a TV studio.
Now the catch: Almost everyone will be offended by at least one of my assertions.
And I say that with no disrespect. That's because, I'm certain to be wrong on
one such claim. Even though I'd stake my well-being on each, I know that, if I
were omniscient, I'd be surprised by some item that's true after all.
As I write, we're in the midst of yet another political campaign. We're all
playing a similar "what is true?" game in that arena. Each party, each faction,
brings forth evidence for the goodness or the evil of this candidate or that.
The problem is, we can always find evidence to support what we want to believe.
I'm doomed if I can't sustain doubt in the face of evidence.
But that coin has a flip side: I also must doubt my own convictions. So I've made
a list that could easily be made much longer. I expect that I hold at least one
disbelief to offend anyone. Yet, something on that list will prove to be true after all.
Which one? Well, I don't have any idea. But as surely as I struggle to doubt anything
I'm told, one of those claims will turn out to be true despite my doubts. If that
weren't that case, we would be living on a very flat earth, indeed.
I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
I recommend the Wikipedia articles on:
Amelia Earhart's disappearance,
speed of light,
Each article bends backward to accommodate supporters, yet none leaves them much wiggle room.
Images: The Time Machine illustration is a book cover (advertising,) the
illuminated page appears to be in the public domain, we adapted the overcentered wheel
image from a Wikipedia illustration.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2008 by John H.