Today, a cat helps me see how to connect the dots
-- and make the picture whole. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
I like pointillism -- Seurat's
paintings, newspaper photos emerging from clouds of
tiny black dots. But what happens when the whole
fails to emerge, and we're left with only dots?
A librarian recently pointed out to me that some
students using our rich electronic sources fall
into a trap of unmerged dots. That's because the
new computer search engines are powerful. They lead
us only to the precise title or text we seek.
We no longer need to read the whole article or book
to find what we want. We quit reading the nearby
words in a dictionary. We've begun to lose context.
If we let that happen, knowledge will become
sterile. Serendipity will evaporate.
I knew what she meant. When I really set out to
learn, I have to recognize relations among points
in space. Even as I type pointillist letters into
my computer, a cat twists in my lap. The sensate
three-dimensional beast cranes his neck, sniffing
the depth of the room. "Don't let your computer
oversimplify the near-infinite reach of reality,"
he seems to say.
Twenty-two years ago I sat in an outdoor cafe with
four colleagues. We wondered aloud whether or not
we should let students use pocket calculators when
they took tests. How would they ever learn to use
their slide rules!
That sounds so foolish today. A few years later
slide rules went the way of dinosaurs. As we sat in
that cafe, their death was as certain as yours and
mine, and it was far more imminent.
Now our worry doesn't look quite so silly. You had
to do mental arithmetic when you used a slide rule.
You had to place the decimal point in your head.
You were given a mental picture of logarithmic,
exponential, and trigonometric variations.
Our students today are smart, make no mistake. And
they can work wonders with their computers. But
they have far more trouble estimating numbers. They
have trouble in a graphical world. As they're
robbed of context, they have more and more trouble
negotiating the empty space between the dots.
Still, there never was any real hope of keeping
slide rules. And there can be no question that we
have to fully and rapidly embrace the computer
today. Our job as teachers is that of giving our
students the multi-dimensional, multi-textured
context they lost when they left slide rules and
paper graphs behind.
When we're careless, we let computers give us only
dots. Our job as engineers, teachers, information
specialists, and human beings is to display the
mosaic and connect the dots. It is to bring
knowledge all the way back from the computer to
sensate reality. The cat in my lap understands. And
now -- so must I.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds