Today, we talk about amateurs and professionals.
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.
Here's a book of Corelli
sonatas for violin and continuo -- an elegant book,
published in 1785. Its stiff rag paper is idented
by fine letter-press printing. Only the music is
plain -- just bare-bones melodies without ornaments
or embellishments. Corelli expected his players to
be amateur composers. They completed the music with
their own decorative trills and turns.
This was the age of the amateur, and it produced
such creative genius. Modern professionalism was
unknown. An amateur is literally someone who loves
what he does. And that's what drove 18th-century
genius. Whether you played music or wrote
mathematics, you were expected to put your own
passions into your work.
When Igor Stravinsky was asked how we should
interpret his 20th-century music, he said, "I don't
want it interpreted, I just want it played." He
wrote for the new breed of professional players
that evolved in the 19th century. He wrote out all
the dynamics and tempos. He asked no more than
computer-like execution of his music by
professional players and conductors alike.
Professionalism was a 19th-century invention.
Individual players could still improvise in
18th-century chamber orchestras, but that's quite
impossible on the scale of a modern symphony.
Science and engineering likewise turned into
professions during the 1830s and 40s. They had to.
The Brooklyn bridge and the space shuttle both
required the coordinated efforts of a lot of
dedicated professional engineers -- of experts who
would do things right every time.
Yet the space shuttle is put into the sky by a
rocket, and Goddard's invention of the
high-altitude rocket in the 1920s was a one-man
effort. Goddard was a highly trained professional,
but he changed the world by thinking like an
amateur. His rocket didn't reflect established
expertise. It was a leap of the mind and a leap of
the heart. Goddard had no guarantee of success, and
he saw a lot of failure before his rockets flew.
The professionals who watched him called him "moon
The creative part of engineering is often done by
professionals, but only in that moment when they
lay expertise aside and behave like amateurs.
Invention, by its nature, lies outside the
professional's arsenal of established knowledge.
You can spot the pros in a group of professionals
and amateurs. Their faces are blanked and detached.
They limit contact with the amateurs, because
amateurs ares potentially dangerous. They don't
play by rules. They risk error. They're the ones
who join the game with their hearts -- as well as
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds