Skip to main content
No. 1909:
What's the Problem

Today, we ask, "What's the problem?" 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.

A colleague and I were talking about science literacy just now, and he wondered out loud, "Where do you think the public gets hung up on understanding science?" It was a useful question. We need to find the roadblock.

The general public understands a great deal -- how the greenhouse effect works, how the solar system moves, how electric circuits or plumbing work. Books like How Things Work are popular and they're understandable. Most people I know are aware that dinosaurs vanished long before humans arrived. They have some idea of what Special Relativity is. They know what the Uncertainty Principle tells us about the world we live in.

Maybe we're less illiterate than we thought! And yet, a huge problem does lie just outside the sort of scientific toolkit I've been describing. The first great hurdle any of us face in learning engineering or science is using mathematics to embody ideas.

Years ago, a young algebra student, justly proud of having straight A's in the subject, told me, "I just love algebra. The only part I can't stand are those story problems." Algebra was, for him, only a system -- rather like solitaire. It existed only as a kind of mental exercise machine.

Story problems are the part of algebra where you convert a physical reality into a form that can be described in objective terms. And that objectification of reality is what separates science. Emily Dickinson understood very well when she wrote:

The Brain is wider than the sky,
For put them side by side,
The one the other will include
With ease, and you beside.

If, say, you and I hope to harness the sun's energy, we need to know a lot about that wide sky. We need to put our brains to it -- translate it into wavelengths, laws of radiation, vapor pressures, equations of fluid flow. We need to formulate and solve a very difficult story problem. Once we've done that, Dickinson will still be there, I promise you. And she'll be smiling, too.

But, before we tackle anything so complex, we need to begin with the simple stuff: How to buy gas by the liter and pay for it in Euros; how to decide how many baby aspirin make up an adult half-gram dose; how to serve four people using a recipe for ten.

Science literacy is not just knowing Newton's law, F = m·a. Those are words that anyone can recite. Science literacy is using the law to find out how fast an object will hit the ground when it's been dropped from a forty-foot-high rooftop.

The brain must be "wider than the sky." The down-to-earth Emily Dickinson knew perfectly well that there was more to the blue sky than basking in sentiment. Too much is there. The brain has to be literate -- it has to take nature seriously. We need to abstract nature, to do the mathematics, to see the full beauty of it.

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

(Theme music)

My thanks to Lewis Wheeler, UH Mech. Engr. Dept., for his counsel.

The full text of the Emily Dickinson poem is as follows:

The Brain - is wider than the Sky -
For - put them side by side -
The one the other will contain
With ease - and You - beside -

The Brain is deeper than the sea -
For - hold them - Blue to Blue -
The one the other will absorb -
As Sponges - Buckets - do -

The Brain is just the weight of God -
For - Heft them - Pound for Pound -
And they will differ - if they do -
As Syllable from Sound -


(Photo by John Lienhard)