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No. 417:

Today, a thought about the language of technology. 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.

The government has developed a high-school course called Principles of Technology. It uses engineering problems to teach physics. Teachers show live problems to the class and then suggest the underlying physics. The course teaches scientific literacy to average students -- not bound for college. The program seems to work. Students come out knowing a great deal.

Still, the course has critics. The students don't know formal math. Teachers can't use the language of science. And we must wonder: Is knowledge flawed when it can't be said mathematically? Has it been bent when it isn't said in the right words?

For example, suppose I say that electricity flows in wires the way water flows in pipes. That's very clear, but it's only true when the pipe flow is laminar. Water moves too fast for that in most pipes. The pipe flow in your house is turbulent. To double the water flow you need four times the pressure. To double the current in a wire you only have to double the voltage.

That would be so much easier to say in mathematics. I want to use terms like: instability and momentum. I want to tell what took me years to learn. I want to use the elegant words that seem to certify my worth in the world.

So should I tell half the story to students who will otherwise never know any physics? Or should I just send those students off to a shop class and tell them nothing at all about electricity or fluid flow or theoretical mechanics?

In the end, I'll take half a loaf. After all, James Watt didn't know thermodynamics, and Henry Ford didn't know operations theory. Gothic cathedral builders couldn't read Euclid in Latin.

At the same time, the modern engines of our ingenuity are the fruit of very complex thinking. They still rise out of raw human imagination. But their flesh and blood are woven from formal physics, math, and chemistry.

This is no easy problem. We need the refined language of math and science, but we also overblow its importance. Poet Jack Gilbert caught it when he once wrote,

It is clear why the angels come no more.
Standing so large in their beautiful Latin,
How could they accept being refracted
So small in another grammar, or leave
Their perfect singing for this broken speech?
Why should they stumble this alien world?

I must learn to speak my thoughts in the vernacular. We all must find ways to leave our beautiful Latin. Only when we do that will the world see the real beauty of the things we make and of the things those engines have to say.

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

(Theme music)

Barinaga, M., Physics for the Future U.S. Work Force. Science, 6 April, 1990, pp 27-28.

Gilbert, J., It is Clear Why the Angels Come No More. Views of Jeopardy. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962. (Gilbert was the Yale Younger Poet of 1962.)