Today, a refreshing burst of radical creativity.
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.
A recent issue of the weekly
New York Times, Science Section, is
stunning. And yet it's typical. It is a happy
reminder that the inventive mind is alive and well
The most dramatic piece is about a new
MacDonnell-Douglas rocket. It's designed to lift a
payload into orbit with a one-stage recoverable
rocket. For years we've dropped off two heavy,
expensive, rocket boosters on the way into space.
Until we can make a rocket so light that fuel is 90
percent of its weight, we'll have to keep dropping
off booster stages to get into orbit.
This single rocket, made from light composite
materials, might go all the way in one shot. We
should be able to get it back and reuse it. Hi-tech
electronics will cut the number of controllers
needed to fly it from a hundred down to only three.
If all this works, space flight will change beyond
A second item tells about new studies of the ways
our human presence has changed the Americas. It's
no surprise that our last few generations have
affected the environment. We've cut down forests
and changed the climate by changing Earth's
But we weren't the first. The myth that American
Indians lived in unspoiled nature is wrong. Their
hunting changed animal life. They burned off trees
to herd game and to clear land for farming. Of
course you and I do far more radical things to
plant cover. We've changed the coastline by moving
inland silt to the sea. But the world we're
changing was man-made to begin with.
The third cover article tells about Victoria
Elizabeth Foe -- a striking woman, 48 years old
with wide-set eyes and fine, strong features. Yet
her face betrays an odd fragility. Foe is an
independent university scholar and MacArthur fellow
who lives from grant to grant. She's no
For years she's studied fruit fly embryology with
the care of Mendel, but with modern instruments.
She tracks cells through the early stages of
embryos. She's learned just where, in the process
of cell division, specialized body parts emerge --
where cells start producing nerves or muscle or
Foe has been a quiet rebel, not doing the things
other scientists do to get ahead in the world. She
works with combined insecurity and tenacity. She's
created a unique scientific baseline that guides
the work of regular career scientists.
So I'm cheered by this week's Times.
All three articles tell of radical change -- a
reusable rocket, a new view of our ecology, and a
breath of fresh air in scientific work. We're
shaking off old constraints. We're learning. And
science itself is taking on new life.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Broad, W,J., Liftoff Nears for Lightweight Rocket.
The New York Times, SCIENCE TIMES,
Tuesday, August 10, 1993, pp. B5-B7.
Stevens, W.K., The Heavy Hand of European
Settlement. The New York Times,
SCIENCE TIMES, Tuesday, August 10, 1993, pp. B5-B8.
Angier, N., Drawing Big Lessons From Fly
Embryology. The New York Times,
SCIENCE TIMES, Tuesday, August 10, 1993, pp. B5-B6.
I finished this episode just as the evening news
came on TV. In perfect counterpoint I watched the
first test flight of the new lightweight rocket. It
was an early version, and it flew only a few
hundred feet. But it was a success.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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