Today, science flows from our nerve endings. 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.
We're at a 1983 lecture in
memory of George Sarton. Sarton was a great
historian of science. Now the speaker, Derek
deSolla Price, puts a new perspective on history
He says that science doesn't feed technology.
Rather, technology springs from raw human
perception. We build machines without understanding
them. Science usually struggles to explain the
things we make, after the fact.
Price tells of scientists trying to understand the
steam engine. When those great chuffing machines
appeared in the English landscape, they demanded
explanation. Scientists erected thermodynamics not
to create engines, but to explain them.
Price looks at 19th-century chemistry. It didn't
flow from Lavoisier's theories. It was driven
instead by the remarkable things that happened when
Galvani created the electric battery.
Knowing begins when we expose our senses to
experience. Our technology helps us do that. When
Galileo made one of the first telescopes, he
suddenly created scientific revelations
artificially. The new 17th-century instruments gave
us sudden comprehension through the senses rather
than through the mind.
Since Price speaks in memory of George Sarton,
let's meet Sarton's daughter May. Her lean, taut
poetry lays bare the revelation we gain through the
raw nerves of human experience. We walk the windy
woods with May Sarton as she looks for the source
of revelation. Hear the way she threads through her
senses in a mounting pursuit of understanding. She
I carried two things around in my mind
Walking the woods and thinking how to say
Shiver of poplar leaves in a light wind,
Threshing of water over troubled stones
A brook rippling its interrupted way --
Two things that bring a tremor to the bones.
And now I carry around in my head a third.
The force of it stops me as I walk the wood,
Three things for which no one has found a word
Wind in the poplar, tremor under the skin
Deep in the flesh a shiver of more than blood
Modern science let sensate experience shape
understanding. Galvani's electric battery was "a
tremor in the bones" of scientists, make no
mistake. The steam engine was "a shiver of more
Yet sensate knowledge was the beginning of our
notion of a detached scientific method. We've tried
to let sensate data speak directly to the printed
page. We've tried to clean science up -- to take it
away from the baseness in which it begins.
But we can't do that. Science rises in the realm of
the senses. Science precisely seeks May Sarton's
moment when "things for which no one has found a
word" are made "wholly one."
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds