No. 2876: THE SCIENTISTS SPEAK
by John H. Lienhard
Today, scientists speak as WW-II ends. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run
and about the people whose ingenuity created them.
Old books seem to cling to me like autumn leaves. Here's
one that I'd thought was junk. But, the other day as I was fixing to toss it, I paused
to turn some pages. Good thing I did! It's The Scientists Speak from 1945
-- 79 short essays by great engineers and scientists of that time. Each seeks to
tell us where some facet of science is headed. Of course, that's a fool's game.
Futures are unknowable, especially those molded by the creative imagination.
Many of the writers are aware of that fact. Irving Langmuir (who won a Nobel Prize
for his work on surface chemistry) describes his earlier invention of the
gas-filled light bulb. He takes
pains to tell us that such advances do not result from planning. Rather, they're
born of future-changing momentary insights.
The elephant in the room back then was
J. Robert Oppenheimer.
He is searingly to-the-point: He says that the atom bomb, whose development he led, revealed no new
scientific principles, nor was it a research tool. It was a weapon. And any new
weapon, once it exists, will be used again. He simply utters a plea that we build a world
"... united, in law, in common understanding, in common humanity, before a common peril."
known to us for the space telescope that's so justly named after him,
was a great 20th century cosmologist and student of nebulae. He writes about "The
Exploration of Space." But he means telescopic, not vehicular,
exploration. He describes the path by which our understanding of the universe has
expanded, and will keep expanding. "Slowly," he says,
"as the darkness recedes, the universe will loom forth." Well, the
telescope named after him
has certainly vindicated that remark.
Most of these people merely tell us that their area has done much for us and is poised
to do much more. True enough, I suppose, but not especially useful.
Helicopter inventor Igor Sikorsky
oversteps himself when he predicts private commuter and taxi helicopters.
Biology might be the weakest section. Small wonder -- the discovery of the DNA molecule
would soon turn that field on its axis.
Cytologist T. S. Painter
comes close when he tells us that the study of human genes will be important. But then,
all these greats faced an impossible task. The wisest of them simply tell us where we are,
then suggest a mindset with which to embark on the great ferment of the post war period.
Perhaps Polaroid inventor Edwin Land
does that better than any. He finishes with a statement that I find true and powerful.
"... applied science, purposeful and determined, and pure science, playful and freely
curious, continuously support and stimulate each other. The great nation of the future
will be the one which protects the freedom of pure science as much as it encourages
I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.
The Scientists Speak. Warren Weaver, ed. (NY: Boni & Gaer, 1945/'46/'47)
See also the many links within the episode for more back-story on the people I mention. I should
also point out that the book makes no mention at all of the digital computer. Atom bomb image courtesy
of Wikemedia Commons. Hubble telescope photo courtesy of NASA.
This episode was first aired on April 5, 2013
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2012 by John H. Lienhard.