Today, we fool ourselves. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
So sings the chorus as Aeneas leaves
Dido and seals her death. Henry Purcell's opera
Dido and Aeneas makes a fit commentary
on a lot of science and technology. We can wreak so
much damage when we turn our overloaded brains loose
Great minds against
And shun the cure they most desire.
Try a simple one: A tiger walks at 5 miles an hour
toward a sleeping doe. One hour before the tiger
gets to the doe, a bee leaves the doe, flying 30
miles an hour. He flies to the tiger, then back to
the doe, back to the tiger, and so on. How far will
the bee fly before the tiger reaches the doe and
pounces on her?
That sounds like the problems that gave us fits in
high school math. We're drawn into each leg of the
bee's flight. The calculation is long and
complicated. Finally, we get 30 miles. But why
bother! The bee flies for one hour at 30 miles an
hour. He obviously goes 30 miles. What's to
Blindness like that can mean real trouble when
engineers sit down to solve problems. We can swim
in equations, computers, and soul-satisfying
complexity while the answer lies right under our
noses. Our problems can be just like the riddle of
the deer, the tiger, and the bumblebee.
Over-elaboration doesn't just lead to needless
labor. It can also lead to grave errors. During
high summer in Seattle, in 1956, we designed a
machine for laying natural gas pipelines. I wrote
equations and spun complex control systems. I
reveled in my new-found Olympian powers. I was
quite unready for the humbling lesson autumn would
We finished the design and began pricing parts.
We'd overlooked one small thing. Part of the
machine was a huge iron counterweight. A pound of
iron cost pennies more in Seattle, far from the big
Midwestern steel mills. It was just enough to price
us out of the market! Our machine'd been doomed
from the start.
Great minds do against themselves conspire. They do
shun the cure they most desire. All Dido had to do
was ask Aeneas the second question -- "Who said you
must leave me!" If she had, they'd have seen that
he'd been tricked. A happy ending was right there
all the time.
If I'd been less full of myself, I'd have looked
beyond all the fun I was having that summer.
We'd've wondered why only Midwestern companies sold
big counterweighted machinery. But that, of course,
is called being wise -- and we were only smart.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds