Today, we look under the surface of a technical
meeting. 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.
I'm in Berkeley, California,
with fifty Japanese and American engineering
scientists. These are the reigning experts on
liquid-vapor flows. We've met to talk about
boiling, condensation, water hammer, explosive
vaporization -- things like that.
Behind it all is a shared interest in modern power
equipment. How well these people wrestle with
energy will decide your electric bill. They're the
ones who avoid nuclear meltdowns. They'll
eventually implement fusion power.
So graphs and schematic diagrams march across the
screen. And no one exposes the least flicker of
feeling for underlying drama. But drama is here.
Consider the matter of size. If we yoked every
person on earth to treadmills, they'd sweat to
match the output of one big power plant. We have to
invent ways to move the power of thousands of
toasters through areas the size of your desktop.
We have to manipulate power on a scale so far
beyond human capacity we should be terrified.
Twelve years ago a student and I modeled the
accidental break of a hot-water pipe in a nuclear
reactor. Our flow area was only a thousandth of
The result was a mini-explosion that shook the
foundations of our building. Suddenly we knew in
our stomachs -- not just our minds -- what we were
dealing with. Still, these people know that fear
doesn't harness dragons.
So we grind through five long days of nose-to-nose
conversation. The Japanese and Americans struggle
to understand each other's rules of politeness, as
they struggle to understand each other's equations
A Japanese engineer has worked with medical people.
He uses magnetic resonance imaging -- MRI -- to
measure steam-water flows. We know MRI works in the
human skull. Now he's made it work in a pipe. An
American is trying to predict steam-water flows
with avant-garde ideas about chaos and fractals.
Evening comes. I call my home to talk about the
family and the household. I forget to mention what
I found out today about a new hope for cold fusion.
I, too, overlook the drama here.
So what is happening in all this dry talk? These
people are changing the quality and character of
everyday life. But they speak only of numerical
analysis -- of experimental accuracy. They break
the big picture into very small pieces.
They hide their drama in a thicket of problems. One
day we'll live in a cleaner, safer world. And then?
Well, I know these people. When, like you and me,
they enjoy that world -- they'll quite overlook the
part they played in building it.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds