Today, more on the matter of heredity or
environment. 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 hear a lot about nature
vs. nurture. Are we formed genetically or by
surroundings? Many families offer grist for that
mill. Did Bach's children inherit their father's
ability or were they just raised with the sound of
music? Four generations of Bernoullis touched all
of science and math. John and Abigail Adams's
legacy included two presidents, an ambassador, and
a great writer.
Let's follow one such family through four
generations. We begin with an 18th-century English
cobbler, John Boole -- an unschooled tradesman who
loved to think. He taught himself Greek and read
the classics in his spare time. He also built
telescopes. At one point he hung a sign in his shop
Anyone who wishes to view the works of God in a
spirit of reverence is invited to come in and look
through my telescope.
John's son George was a prodigy. At 14 he published
a translation of a Greek poem. He learned math on
his own and, in 1844, won the Royal Society's gold
medal in math. He's famous for his work on what we
call Boolean logic -- the logic of your computer
In 1855 Boole married Mary Everest, an extremely
bright woman and niece of the geographer that Mt.
Everest was named for. George died early of
pneumonia and left 32-year-old Mary with five
daughters and no income. She managed to land a post
as a librarian and occasional teacher of
mathematics at Queen's College in London.
Mary diligently saw to the nurture of her
daughters. She sold George's gold medal to buy a
harmonium so they could have music. That act
honored everything George had stood for, and it
worked. One daughter became a chemistry teacher in
a medical college. Another was a noted novelist. A
third daughter was a homemaker who studied the
geometry of hyperspace in her spare time. She
ultimately won an honorary degree at the
University of Gronigen.
Another daughter gave birth to a son who has been a
presence in every aspect of my own work. He was
Geoffrey Ingram Taylor, better known as G.I.
Taylor. No one works long with fluid flow,
turbulence, applied mechanics, the action of
micro-organisms, or stability theory without
reading fundamentals written by Taylor.
Yet Taylor, like everyone in that remarkable
family, did nothing to aggrandize himself. His work
was his pleasure. Long ago a graduate student of
mine nerved himself up to write Taylor for advice
on his problem. He got back a handwritten letter in
which Taylor expressed his simple joy in the beauty
of the phenomenon.
Finally, for all his fine work, Taylor was given
that very same gold medal his grandmother had once
sold. And we suddenly realize: Mary Boole hadn't
really given up the medal at all. She'd simply
reinvested it. Where genetics rides in all this,
who can say? But the powerful presence of nurture
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds