Today, your life changes -- in a blink. 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.
Robert Bly spoke last night.
What I came away with was not his poetry nor his
ideas about a descent into grief followed by
reintegration. Those ideas were there, and they
were strong. But I was caught by a stray remark --
not his main theme at all.
Bly mentioned the idea of a defining moment. He
meant that instant when a small event changes your
life. You know what I'm talking about. It's
happened to you. We're the sum of such moments. Our
lives are shaped by our response to small events.
Here's one: In the '70s, I studied what would
happen if a high-pressure hot water line failed in
a nuclear reactor. I had to break an experimental
pipe open very rapidly. I could do it by tearing a
metal diaphragm, or I could blast it open. But
diaphragms don't tear fast enough, and explosives
are too messy.
I mentioned it to a colleague, Roger Eichhorn.
"Hm," he said, "The pressure in that pipe would
blow a cap off right now if you could just release
it quickly." So a process began.
A student and I designed a titanium plug and a
guillotine device to release it. With it we managed
to drop the pressure in a pipe at the astonishing
rate of 20 million psi/second -- far faster than
anyone else ever had. We patented the gadget. The
results of that work are now part of the nuclear
You and I make lots of calculated changes --
education, marriage, a new job. Our pipe experiment
began as one more calculated effort. But no one
planned an invention. Invention doesn't work that
way. We managed to do something significant this
time around just because we let ourselves be
changed in a blink.
So where did the idea come from? From Eichhorn? The
student? Me? No, creativity is communal. Nothing
has any one absolute inventor. We've told the tale
of the lonely genius so many times we start
believing it. In fact, it isn't true at all.
Look closely at any invention and you'll find some
form of community behind it. Invention happens when
we're interactive, self-expressive, alert, and
willing to enter into change.
Years later I passed Eichhorn in the office one
Friday evening. This time he wondered, almost idly,
if our college might create some sort of radio
spot. Another chance remark! By Monday I'd designed
this series. And the day I took up radio my life
So Bly's comment caught me. Creativity is an
instant -- a moment when our lives are defined.
It's the moment we touch each other's lives. And
our response to that tiny passing event doesn't
change just us. It changes the world we live in at
the same time.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds