Today, another look at form and function. 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.
NOVA did a fine program back in 1985: The Shape of Things.
It explained why the chambered nautilus displays a pure spiral of Archimedes and
why rivers meander. It showed a hundred ways that nature puts
spheres, hexagons, and helixes to use. I especially liked the part about tree branches.
A tree must keep its leaves -- its solar collector -- evenly spaced. That can be
done in many ways: a small plant might array each leaf on its stem so they all
radiate from a central hub. But a tree has far too many leaves for that. How
to hold them all out to the sun without collapsing under its own weight? The
tree minimizes its weight by subdividing its stem -- by dividing in two, over
and over, until each leaf rides at the end of a mere twig.
Nature has all kinds of tricks up her sleeve. The shapes of snowflakes, feathers,
wind ridges on sand dunes -- they all achieve her ends with remarkable grace and
The NOVA program ended by panning across a bucolic vista until it opened into a
view of a city. Just when we'd been hypnotized by splash patterns and bird
skeletons -- by waves and spider webs -- we suddenly saw the harsh lines of
the human hand laid across nature's order.
But wait a minute! A city is also a part of nature. You and I are elements of
nature as we build our city. The city seems to intrude on the simpler rhythms
of form outside it only until we assume a new set of eyes. Imagine we're a
disembodied intelligence from another galaxy. We've never seen Earth and
never seen a human. Figuring out the purpose of a house, a highway, or a
cathedral from that vantage point might well be harder than understanding the
shape of a tree. We are a complex species and the organic forms of our cities
evolve in byzantine ways.
So we need to see our city in the framework of its purpose. Like the chambered
nautilus it is beautiful within that framework. It fulfills our complex, diverse,
and subtle needs in strange and unexpected ways. That's why I like Houston so
much. Its form shifts on every street. Some unopened oyster, some hidden pearl,
lurks in every byway -- bayous and skyscrapers, stadiums and theatres, fast food
and fine food, electronics and antiques. Not every element serves every individual,
but as a unit it serves us all.
We are, after all, homo technologicus -- a species which, more than any
other, survives only with the help of an exoskeleton. That exoskeleton is a huge
system of sustaining technologies. Few forms in nature have to fulfill such complex
functions as a city does. It's facile to see beauty in a sea shell.
But step back, instead, and look at our sprawling city. Let its functions and
its stunning range of purpose come into focus. As they do, the city becomes a
natural phenomenon complex and lovely -- as a sunrise or a redwood tree.
I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
NOVA: The Shape of Things. Vestron Video, 1985.
This is a greatly revised version of Episode No. 275. All photos by J. Lienhard
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2009 by John H.