Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 945:
BEST AND WORST

by John H. John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 945.

Today, let's look at some American extremes and ask what they mean. 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.

Here's a book: The Best and Worst of Everything. Published in 1991, it's a fine commentary on excesses of 20th-century life. For example, of the 10 worst battles of all time, 9 were in the 20th century. Try putting 1.8 million deaths in the WW-I Battle of Ypres into any kind of perspective. Try understanding a personal lawsuit award of 77 million dollars. Who can make sense of 2 billion dollars in advertising for Philip Morris in 1990?

The graduation rate for college athletes is one of our most shameful statistics. A few universities like Harvard and Gonzaga graduate over 90 percent of their athletes. But 15 universities graduate less than 20 percent, and big schools normally graduate only 35 to 40 percent of their football and basketball players.

Not everything is quite that horrible, but the magnitudes we deal in are disorienting. The most copies of a paperback sold: Benjamin Spock's Baby and Child Care at 40 million. Annual stud fees of 3.7 million dollars for a thoroughbred; 160 million registered cars in America; 200 million barrels of beer per year.

The book also profiles regional behavior. The worst alcoholism and highest stress are in gambling cities, Reno and Las Vegas. The least are in college towns: State College, Pennsylvania, Lawrence, Kansas, Bloomington, Indiana. Houston ranks 8th in the arts, New York 1st. How did New York slip in there ahead of us? I don't get it!

People speak most rapidly in Columbus, Ohio, and most slowly in Sacramento, California. They're best educated in Austin, Texas, and least educated in Newark, New Jersey. You pay most for electricity in New York. Atlanta has the worst crime rate. People in Washington DC use the most psychiatric help, 1.4 visits per person per year. People in Pittsburgh spend the most on deodorants, $8 a year. Here in humid Houston we spend only $5 a year. The physical size of cities is an odd statistic. Houston is the fourth largest, and Anchorage is the largest of all with 1732 square miles. Of course neither of us has natural boundaries.

As figures tumble forth, two things are clear. First, we feel the density of our technologies in these extremes. Extremes are generated at the boundaries of the technological world -- where society struggles hardest to cope with change.

They also tell of our diversity. Despite the homogenizing influence of the information media, we sustain huge differences from place to place. Despite the artificial world that technology builds, we feel the effects of our physical geography.

Why, for example, does Anchorage have the greatest number of VCRs and the second lowest number of teen pregnancies? Surely that says something about life in a land of midnight sun. But as to just what it says, I will not speculate.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Krantz, L., The Best and Worst of Everything, New York: Prentice-Hall, 1991.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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