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Engineering Education and Shifting Reality

Mini-Plenary Address, The American Society of Engineering Education,
Mechanical. Engineering. Division
Palais de Congresse, Montreal, Canada, 10:30 AM, Wednesday, June 19, 2002

by John H. Lienhard
Mechanical Engineering Department
University of Houston
Houston, TX 77204-4792
jhl [at] (jhl[at]uh[dot]edu)

Good morning. I bring my heartiest good wishes to all of you who struggle to negotiate the treacherous shifting sands of early-twentieth-first-century engineering education. When I gave John Lamancusa my title, almost a year ago, I told him I would talk about pointillism, memory, and spatial visualization.

But, as I assembled my thoughts over the past two weeks, I found myself looking at an even deeper problem that, I am convinced, taints everything we try to do. I'll still have something to say about pointillism, memory, and spatial visualization. But today I think we face a far spookier underlying problem than I realized we did when I gave John my title last year.

The obvious sources of all the complexity of our situation today are, of course, the various electronic media. What they have done has clearly been to alter the very texture of knowledge itself. At this point I'm convinced that, if we think we know what we're doing, it's only because we haven't caught on to the magnitude of what we face. Anyone whose head is not spinning has to've missed the problem.

Take, for example, plain old information -- naked facts. Information was once a hard-earned commodity. If we didn't know how to spell a word, we had to find a dictionary and thumb through alternatives. We paid a penalty for not knowing. Now information at that level hardly seems worth remembering. At the same time, where will we be if we simply empty our minds? Any creative process has to be an interaction between knowledge in our heads and sensory input.

What we do when we function creatively is to load an array of knowledge -- plain old remembered data -- into our frontal lobes, where we can manipulate it. We look for intersections of previously unrelated threads among those data. Rote memorization may not be creative thinking, but without a great deal of remembered fact, we'll never accomplish much. If we abdicate the task of memorizing to the computer, we will become a dull and plodding people.

And so we find the array of human experience is shifting in spooky ways. The role of memory and memorization is only a part of it. Let me tell you about two very different articles I ran into the other day in the New York Science Times: Each article hinted at the way information access is changing our thinking. One dealt with virtual archaeology: It turns out we can now visit old ruins, fully restored, on our computer screen. A group at UCLA takes us on a virtual stroll through the Roman Basilica Aemilia.

This was once a three-hundred-foot-long three-story public space, with offices, shops, and a great hall. It was built in the second century BC, expanded in AD 22, and destroyed in the fifth century. The UCLA group has pieced it together from fragmentary evidence -- writings, ruins, images on coins. I toured this recreated "original" on my computer, and it was glorious; I felt physically present.

UCLA has also done a virtual restoration of the Colosseum. Like an online spell-checker, this is not so much new information as it is new access. We suddenly see how inconvenient the upper floors were for those of its fifty thousand patrons who sat in the cheap seats. We find how easy it was to get around on the lower floors. We see the view from the various seats.

Now, that's all very nice. But this sort of thing leaves academic archaeologists divided. Is this just a fancy computer game, or is it a new kind of understanding? You and I can easily say, "How conservative!" But then we look at our own situation: Students arrive in our classes every day, armed with new means for dodging the forms of teaching that we intend to bring them.

We tell our students to sketch a device or a graph so they can hone their sense of design space and proportion. They give us a page of computer output. We tell them to solve an equation so they'll know how equations work structurally. They give us five lines of Mathematica.

Getting our students to learn what we want them to know in this environment is like trying to shape a snake by twisting its tail. And, at the end of the day, we realize that we aren't completely sure what it is that students really should know in this new environment. The only certain thing is, the texture of our understanding is being altered. Students who've once seen those UCLA images will never see the past the way their teachers do. Something's been lost, and something else gained, but we can't be sure just what.

The other Times article told about a completely different sort of information use. This one was about password selection. A thief has one chance in ten thousand of guessing a four-digit password. If, instead, we use four letters, he has one chance in a half million. Now computers offer a screen filled with hundreds of component images. One is a page full of anatomical detail -- a skull, an arterial system, the skeleton of a hand. And you can click on each component piece of bone -- each component vein.

So I choose only three images to make up my password. I decide to click on a jawbone, a major artery to the brain, and one bone of the fourth finger. If the page has five hundred clickable elements, there's not a chance in a hundred million of guessing my password.

And to recall my three choices, I just relive the sharp sensation I feel when I press my fourth fingertip against the artery behind my jaw.

Here are two entirely different instances, but both involve a vast multiplication of information. In one case, we tour places that no longer exist. In the other, password selection moves down into our own subjective musings. What's happening in both cases is that the density of data we're given becomes so great that it mimics human experience. Suddenly, rather than providing mere information, the computer becomes a new arm of human experience. And, as it does, we really find ourselves meaning something quite unlike what we meant twenty years ago, when we used that old word reality.

Next let us consider how much this notion takes a much more radical turn than you might expect. Consider this: In the late eighteenth century, the new coin of the realm was power -- coal and the new steam engines. Power was poised to change the face of Great Britain, and then of the whole world. In 1776, James Boswell (Samuel Johnson's famous biographer) spoke with James Watt's colleague, Matthew Boulton. Boulton uttered a wonderful double-entendre. He told Boswell,

I sell here, Sir, what all the world desires to have, POWER!

After he said that, labor was taken off our backs, and new products changed the face of the Earth. The texture of reality changed.

That was then. Now the new coin of the realm is information. Information is literally replacing both power and material goods. Take the jet airplane: Today it looks pretty much the way it did forty years ago. What's changed is its efficiency. Flight is now computer-managed to the point that the airplane burns about half as much fuel as it once did. Information has replaced expensive kerosene.

That's also true of production. Information management has greatly reduced waste. Fewer products rot, or become obsolete, in warehouses. That's because the information gulf that once separated consumers from the production line is being reduced daily.

So it is quite literally true that information is replacing the material realities we once thought were irreplaceable. That fact of our new world is something that would've struck most of us as implausible even as late as 1980.

Only twenty years after Boulton made his wonderful remark to Boswell, the Romantic poets began telling us something that signaled today's information revolution. They made the wonderfully counterintuitive claim that we create nature by dreaming nature. And they meant it! They were telling us that nature has no meaning outside the human conception of it.

In 1962, Thomas Kuhn took that idea another step forward in his remarkable book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. You remember how people seized upon Kuhn's use of the word paradigm for any established body of science. (In fact, some people almost destroyed the word by bowdlerizing it.) But listen to what Kuhn actually says at the end of one chapter:

I have so far argued only that paradigms are constitutive of science. Now I wish to display a sense in which they are constitutive of nature itself.

Suddenly a historian of science is telling us precisely what the Romantic poets told us, and we might well find it very off-putting. Then Kuhn explains himself. He begins the next chapter by saying,

... the historian of science may be tempted to exclaim that when paradigms change, the world itself changes with them. Led by a new paradigm, scientists adopt new instruments and look in new places. Even more important, during revolutions scientists see new and different things when looking with familiar instruments in places they have looked before. It is rather as if the professional community had been suddenly transported to another planet ...

And this is precisely what's happening to us. We really have been transported to another planet.

Suppose, for example, that you and I lived in America in 1850 and were thinking about Hong Kong. We'd gaze out upon our flat horizon and imagine a three-month journey on a sailing ship.

By now, we've seen the curved horizon from 35,000 feet. After the moon landings, Earth turned into a gossamer blue and white sphere floating in inky black space. And we measure the trip to Hong Kong in hours, not months. So Earth simply cannot be the same place for us that it was for our great-grandparents. And yet, you and I believe that nature out there has some absolute character that does not depend on how we see it. There must be an objective nature that's independent of what we see.

But, the point is, that's not entirely relevant. After all, if nature is not what I actually see, then what credence can I give to the view from my window? Different skeins of experience really do alter what you and I see when we look at the same thing. Why else is my childhood home so small when I return to it as an adult?

Technology is the factor that most rapidly and dramatically changes reality for us. When Galileo turned his new telescope on the moon, he made it clear, for the first time, that the moon had a rough surface. Our night sky has, ever since, included, not a perfect celestial sphere, but a pockmarked rock reflecting the sun.

From that small step in human perception flowed a whole new way of looking for, and looking at, reality. It was a major step in creating the methods of modern science and in changing what we expected of science.

We catch a glimmer of objective nature in our measuring instruments. But our actions are ultimately shaped by what our mind makes of that glimmer. Now the Internet pours new images and information into our lives. Never before have we had at hand so much knowledge of nature.

Our perception of reality is shifting on so large a scale there's no telling where it's going. Nor can we ever know ahead of time how our behavior will change, each time we recreate nature within us. For all practical purposes, our changing perceptions really are changes within nature itself.

Of course you and I believe that nature has some ultimate character, without our witness to it. That belief keeps us honest. It forces us to keep stretching and changing what we see.

But the Romantic poet Wordsworth clearly understood that we're inevitably woven into what nature is. He captured the intimacy between our mind and nature in his poem Tintern Abbey. He first recalled the wild country surrounding the ruins of the old Abbey. Then he said,

... that blessed mood, …
In which the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world,
Is lightened:--that serene and blessed mood,
In which the affections gently lead us on,--
Until, the breath of this corporeal frame
And even the motion of our human blood
Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul:
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.

Those are wonderful lines, but they're also disturbing. Is nature really a harmony we form from the weary weight of the otherwise unintelligible world? If nature really is what we make of sense data, then we carry an even larger responsibility than we once thought.

You can see where I'm going with this. Information has assumed a real primacy over matter. And it's a primacy we never before imagined to be there.

Next idea here: It is the notion that the transfer of information is, itself, a technology. Clay tablets, papyrus, alphabetical writing, printing presses, telegraphy, TV, the Internet. More than that, however, technology itself is information. It is a medium of communication. Consider this odd fact:

For any technology to succeed it must have a seldom-talked-about quality. For a technology to become a part of our lives, it must also become a part of our metaphorical vocabulary. And practically all our cultural metaphors are technological: "He had a will of iron." "She hid her candle under a bushel basket." "The storm came up suddenly; it hit us like an express train." "You really hit the nail on the head."

Clock metaphors, in particular, surround us: "The team functioned like a Swiss watch." "We had to hurry; the clock was ticking." The circular face of a sundial, with its shadow moving left to right, was copied straight onto the faces of ancient water clocks. Water clocks used a float in a steadily draining tank to tell time. But that float drove gears, and the gears drove hands around a dial.

Then, around AD 1300, the tick-tock mechanical escapement radically improved clock accuracy. It made clocks smaller and cheaper. But, changed as they were, clocks still had dials, bells, and gears. Medieval writers had almost nothing to say about the new mechanism inside, so historians still aren't sure exactly when the mechanical escapement took over. The outward form, the clock face, could not change, because that's where the metaphor is expressed. And medieval writers looked at the metaphor, not the machinery inside, when they mentioned clocks.

Replica of an early 17th-century clock with a foliot-and-verge escapement mechanism

Around 1920, electrical timing elements, using the steady oscillation of alternating current, began replacing mechanical escapements. Accuracy took another leap forward. But clocks still looked the same. Quartz-crystal clocks still have the circular face of a sundial or a water clock. But they also have second hands that move in little jumps -- as though they were controlled by an escapement mechanism. We have, on a visceral level, sustained the old metaphors.

Digital clocks show time as a colorless sequence of rising numbers. That's pure simplicity, but it's simplicity the same way a tree is simpler than a forest. A circular dial paints a picture of Earth's rotation. It models our own experience of passing time. It's a lovely analog of reality. In a digital display, night never falls. Time just advances, without features, minute after minute.

The competition between analog and digital readout might seem to be in balance. But! What do most of you wear on your wrists? The fascinating truth is, the digital clock has already lost in that competition. It simply can't compete with the metaphorical power and visual grace of the circling motion of an analog face. One place the digital face survives is in our bedside alarm clock. But that's not meant to be a companion during the day; it persists only there, and only to tell us one thing. That's whether 6:30 AM has yet arrived.

And so, if we hope to predict the death or survival of a technology, we certainly ask if it's functional. But that's never enough by itself. It also has to serve as a metaphor for something beyond than function. Only after a technology has touched our hearts does it persist from one generation to the next. Once a technology becomes part of our metaphorical substrate, it survives. Live concerts survive recordings. Pens survive word processors.

That's why printed books are secure in the wake of the computer. As computers have found their way around the limitations of the paper book, electronic information is already unrecognizably different. And paper books survive.

Technology, information, and the metaphors we live by are hopelessly interwoven. Each of us in this room deals in the linkage between technology and information. Each of us is, therefore, deeply involved with shaping new metaphors for reality. That means the business of redefining nature consequently falls to us. And I'm not kidding when I say that. That role is inescapable, since information literally overlaps materiality.

I keenly see and feel that responsibility as I function both as a teacher and on the radio -- as I try to synthesize and distribute information. As you and I manage a major avenue of access to information, we work in a world where, tomorrow, nothing will be as it seems today.

Early on a Saturday morning last year, it began raining very hard in Houston. My wife and I got out of bed and watched the street in front of the house. By 2:00 AM, the street was a river with water lapping on the front lawn. By 2:30 it was seeping into the house. By dawn, water had risen to the roofs of stalled eighteen-wheelers in the major highways. Power was out in many hospitals. Forty thousand homes and buildings were damaged. Five billion dollars' worth of damage had been done. And twenty-some people had died.

Yet, it was only rain. Rain that'd fallen upon us so many times in the past and done no more than refresh the ground. So many little raindrops had added up until what we saw bore no resemblance to mere raindrops.

Few of us are generally aware of how rapidly books were produced after Gutenberg. By 1501, a torrent of twenty million new books had appeared in Europe over a scant 45-year period. When that happened, books suddenly became something that books alone had never been, and they altered life on planet Earth. Exactly how drastically, even violently, they did so is another story for another day.

However, the point is that now, five hundred years later, we've just acquired a billion new computers. And those computers have, long since, formed a new technological metaphor in our lives. If books are the mentors to whom we subject ourselves, computers are servants who sit at our side and do our bidding.

While the new flood of information that computers provide has already formed a new reality, none of us has anything close to a clear picture of that reality. At the same time, you and I bear the full responsibility for bringing that reality into being.

Now, just so you don't misunderstand how deadly earnest I am in saying that reality is something other than we've always taken it to be, let me digress into a truly bizarre place. It's been a hundred and one years since Max Planck published his famous paper introducing the quantum theory. For a century we've tried to figure out what that paper really means. Every explanation takes us further from all that common sense says about our world. We try to reject each new violation of human intuition, but quantum mechanics relentlessly passes every rational and experimental test.

We've learned that we live in an indeterminate world, that two particles can be in the same place at the same time, and that corporeal solidity is an illusion.

Now Oxford physicist David Deutsch has been giving flesh and blood to the most seemingly insane notion of them all (and one that I find very compelling). In 1957, Hugh Everett, a graduate student at Princeton, suggested that quantum mechanics makes sense only if there are many parallel universes.

Deutsch supports Everett's idea by reminding us of an old experiment in which we shine a beam of light through thin parallel slits onto photographic film. Only every other slit of light appears on the film. If we've arranged things correctly, the alternate projected slits show up only as darkness.

Earlier quantum theorists had tried to explain this by saying that photons interact like waves and cancel one another. But that calls for a hopeless tangle of underlying assumptions. Deutsch points out that it can work only if invisible shadow photons enter from a parallel universe and obstruct the flow of light.

Bizarre as that may be, other physicists find it increasingly inescapable. Like so many other quantum ideas, this too appears to flow from logical necessity. And we can't help but notice that it's one thing to speculate about parallel universes. But here we we're asked to admit that (at least on the quantum level) we actually interact with these other worlds.

Think about the implications: Our lives are a sequence of choices: stand up or sit down, turn left or turn right, strike out or forgive. If Deutsch is right, we opt into one universe or another every time we make any free-will choice, no matter how small. There is, after all, no room for free will in a deterministic universe of pure cause and effect.

Any free-will decision has to be made in a place below the level of apparent cause and effect. And that's where we touch those alternate universes. All our other selves are out there living lives better or worse than our own. That wrong turn I took, umpty-ump years ago, simply separated me from another self who took the right turn. He's out there living out that other life. Perhaps he found fame and riches -- only to suffer some disaster six months later.

And so, if Deutsch is right, they're all out there -- all possible futures. Do you want to reverse time and redo the past? Well, it's already been done. That other you, the one who did it right, is out there. And maybe he or she is wishing that he or she'd taken the road you chose. If Deutsch is right, all possible worlds exist. So who's to name any one of them as real?

Of course, we need to be skeptical. We need to doubt all this. And yet it does suggest that reality is no longer quite the linear, single-valued straitjacket it once was.

So it is with our chosen work of teaching. We no longer work in a world where yesterday's class notes can serve us. We need to truly understand where today's students live. And here we come back to the three areas in which student perceptions and abilities are being so powerfully affected by the electronic media: pointillism, memory, and spatial visualization.

I've already said something about memory. By pointillism, I refer to the strange way in which the computer draws us down to single points of information. Years ago, I'd have to read a huge amount of Shakespeare trying to find out who said "My library was dukedom large enough," and where he said it. Now, takes me straight to Prospero in The Tempest, Act 1 -- and I read far less Shakespeare.

The easy provision of specific points of information is directing our students' attention (and ours as well) away from the context of information. And I want to suggest that the loss is potentially far more serious than is readily apparent.

As to spatial visualization, we face a peculiar illusion. The computer provides us with such brilliant and wonderful visual displays. But the dangerous thing about those displays is that they've all been created for us. We simply gaze at a three-dimensional world -- one that we did not create -- on a two-dimensional screen.

Do we, do our students, retain the ability to build a three-dimensional world in our minds? Who among your friends has the most finely-honed ability to visualize in three dimensions? It is that person who is blind. For the blind must constantly reconstruct the complex surrounding world in their imagination.

And so, if our students have no concept of log paper, orthographic sketching, mental arithmetic -- how to do a Fourier series expansion, or how to machine a piece on a metal lathe -- that's not their ignorance. Rather, it reflects our struggle to see what shifting reality looks like and how to deal with it. And that's something we have to do in the dark. We have to invent an education that will give people what they need, now that their access to knowledge is totally different from ours at their age.

Inventing the right means for teaching in this situation means, literally, predicting the future. And that we can never do. All we can do is create the future of engineering education. We cannot predict it -- we can only create it. Spooky!

How to do that? We need to keep our ear to these students -- this near-alien species before us. We need to watch how bright young minds work in the twenty-first century. Then we need to experiment. We need to try and fail, many times. We need to be able to let go -- both of the knowledge base we believe in and the thing we tried and wanted to work in the classroom last semester.

Our task is quite impossible. And I can't imagine an age, or a business, that I'd rather be in.



For more on the Matthew Boulton quote and its significance, see:

Kuhn T., The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.

For some thoughts on the relation of the Romantic poets and eighteenth-century science, see: Jennings, H., Pandaemonium, 1660-1886. New York: The Free Press, Macmillan, Inc., 1985. See also:

Edgerton, S.Y., Jr., Galileo, Florentine 'Disegno,' and the 'Strange Spotted-nesse' of the Moon. Art Journal, Vol. 44, No. 1, 1984, pp. 225-232.

Ashworth, W. B. Jr., The Face of the Moon: Galileo to Apollo: an Exhibition of Rare Books and Maps, October 13, 1989 -- Februrary 28, 1990, Kansas City, MO: Linda hall Library, 1989.

For the full text of Wordsworth's poem, Tintern Abbey, see, e.g.,

Rohr, R.R.J., Sundials: History, Theory, and Practice, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, undated.

Marshall, R.K., Sundials, New York: the MacMillan Company, 1963.

Eisenstein, E. L., The Printing Press as an Agent of Change. Vol. I and II, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979. See especially, Part One, Chapter 1, "The Unacknowledged Revolution."

Bozeman, L.P., Fadell, J.E., and Lienhard, J.H., INCUNABULA: 1455-1500, The Cradle Years of Book Printing. Houston, TX: University of Houston Library, Catalog of an Exhibit of the same name, October 1995 to January 1996.

Folger, T., Quantum Shmantum. Discover, pp. 36-43, Sept. 2001.

This is David Deutsch's home page: