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No. 957:
A Memorial

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 critique it."

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 done!"

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 work.

(Theme music)

Memorial Tributes, Vol. 7, Washington, D.C., National Academy Press, 1994. (The tribute to Ralph Seban was written by Salomon Levy, a highly distinguished consulting engineer and a former student of Seban's. Few people could have known Seban better, loved him more for his formative influence, or have felt more bound to speak only well of him, than Sal Levy was.)

I am grateful to James Symons (UH Civil Engineering Department, National Academy Member, and contributor to this volume) for drawing my attention to the book and for his amicable -- even sympathetic -- discussions of my reaction to the book.