Skip to main content
No. 928:
Principles of Drama

Today, let's make use of drama. 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.

For some years I've recited Lienhard's Principles of Minimum and Maximum Drama to close friends. It's time for me to share these two important guides to successful living with you.

Like the Laws of Thermodynamics, the first, The Principle of Minimum Drama, is easiest to understand and remember. It says: "The least dramatic explanation of any situation we don't fully understand is the one most likely to be true."

For example, I walk down the hallway and see two colleagues talking. As I draw close, they quit their conversation and go into their offices. So I speculate as to what they were doing.

- They were going to nominate me for the university presidency.
- They were planning to assassinate me.
- They'd just finished their conversation as I came in sight.

Now look at the dramatic content of each possibility. The last lacks all drama, so it's the one that's true. My colleagues really had just finished talking as I came around the corner.

My First Principle is wonderfully useful. It keeps me from assuming the worst. It keeps me out of trouble. But it also bothers people. "Is life really so dull?" they ask me.

Well no, it isn't. Let's go on to the Second Principle -- the harder-to-understand Principle of Maximum Drama. It says: "Once you understand a situation, the truest explanation of that situation is the one with the greatest dramatic content."

For example, take the old story of the philosopher who met three men scraping bricks by the side of the road. He asked them what they were doing and he got three answers:

- I'm removing mortar from old bricks so we can reuse them.
- I'm helping to build a great cathedral on this spot.
- I'm trying to bring people closer to God.

All three answers are true, but the last is most dramatic. It tells most fully what was going on by the side of that road.

In 1951 I worked at the Boeing Company. One day I passed a row of three draftsmen. I asked each what he was doing.

- I'm designing a bracket to hold an air duct, said the first.
- I'm creating the new B-52 bomber, said the second.
- The third pulled a long face and said,
- I'm trying to bring people closer to God.

Twenty years later, in the late days of the Viet Nam War, I learned how true that third and most dramatic answer really was.

Truth and drama really are intertwined. To gain understanding we have to shed drama and reach the essential plainness of facts. That's called scientific detachment. But we'll never know the full meaning of facts without seeing them in their full dramatic regalia. For this world really is a richer place to live than most of us dare to imagine.

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

(Theme music)