Today, meet the person behind the tribute. 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 troubling book by
the National Academy of Engineering. It's a set of
45 memorial tributes to recently deceased, and
highly prominent, engineers. The tributes look like
filled-out questionnaires: "He will be missed by --
He will be remembered for -- He was devoted to --"
You fill in the blank!
Here's a person I knew well: Ralph Seban, the
smartest and most feared faculty member at Berkeley
when I was a student there. Seban was a rude,
arrogant, and deeply caring person. How do you say
that in a piece to be read by his surviving family?
Seban hungered for intellectual companionship. In
his almost desperate impatience he tore visiting
seminar speakers apart. In the classroom, details
were your problem. You could correct the plus and
minus signs. He simply sketched ideas from his
encyclopedic memory. You had to go read the details
in the journals.
"A dedicated teacher," says the memorial article.
What Seban did was to mold students into worthy
adversaries. He lured them into debates which, it
seemed, they could not win. Then, one day,
something remarkable happened.
You found that, when you fully engaged your own
mind, you could stay with him. And he would hold
you there until you collapsed from exhaustion.
Seban's students left Berkeley -- left those
marathons -- with a deep-seated confidence. If
Berkeley had used teacher ratings, he would've
flunked. Yet he was, without doubt, one of the most
effective teachers I've known.
The memorial article praises his research
influence. In 1958 I took his heat convection
course and hated it -- asked to drop it. He glared
and said, "Nuts!" Then he abruptly changed the
subject. He said, "Here's a new paper. Go and
It was sloppy work, but it suggested a new way to
view phase change heat transfer. It drew me in.
Twenty years later, I had, for a season, become a
reigning expert in that area. That was no accident.
Seban saw through things. He saw through me.
I met him at a meeting a few years after he'd
retired. As we chatted, he turned a pocket
calculator over in his hands. "What's it all been
about?" he wondered. "What've I accomplished? The
guy who invented this changed the world. What've I
Of course he'd shaped our whole field with his
uncanny insights. He'd taught the best thinkers in
the business. They're all over the country today.
But no matter: that pocket calculator was an arrow
in his heart.
Seban's mind was a mighty engine -- an engine of
discontent, no doubt, but one that served us all
well. The Sebans of this world make lousy copy for
laundered memorials. They have too many dimensions
-- too much form and shape -- to be so contained.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds