No. 554:
We Fool Ourselves
Audio

Today, we fool ourselves. 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.

Great minds against themselves conspire,
And shun the cure they most desire.

So sings the chorus as Aeneas leaves Dido and seals her death. Henry Purcell's opera Dido and Aeneas makes a fit commentary on a lot of science and technology. We can wreak so much damage when we turn our overloaded brains loose on problems.

Try a simple one: A tiger walks at 5 miles an hour toward a sleeping doe. One hour before the tiger gets to the doe, a bee leaves the doe, flying 30 miles an hour. He flies to the tiger, then back to the doe, back to the tiger, and so on. How far will the bee fly before the tiger reaches the doe and pounces on her?

That sounds like the problems that gave us fits in high school math. We're drawn into each leg of the bee's flight. The calculation is long and complicated. Finally, we get 30 miles. But why bother! The bee flies for one hour at 30 miles an hour. He obviously goes 30 miles. What's to calculate?

Blindness like that can mean real trouble when engineers sit down to solve problems. We can swim in equations, computers, and soul-satisfying complexity while the answer lies right under our noses. Our problems can be just like the riddle of the deer, the tiger, and the bumblebee.

Over-elaboration doesn't just lead to needless labor. It can also lead to grave errors. During high summer in Seattle, in 1956, we designed a machine for laying natural gas pipelines. I wrote equations and spun complex control systems. I reveled in my new-found Olympian powers. I was quite unready for the humbling lesson autumn would bring.

We finished the design and began pricing parts. We'd overlooked one small thing. Part of the machine was a huge iron counterweight. A pound of iron cost pennies more in Seattle, far from the big Midwestern steel mills. It was just enough to price us out of the market! Our machine'd been doomed from the start.

Great minds do against themselves conspire. They do shun the cure they most desire. All Dido had to do was ask Aeneas the second question -- "Who said you must leave me!" If she had, they'd have seen that he'd been tricked. A happy ending was right there all the time.

If I'd been less full of myself, I'd have looked beyond all the fun I was having that summer. We'd've wondered why only Midwestern companies sold big counterweighted machinery. But that, of course, is called being wise -- and we were only smart.

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

(Theme music)