menu Language Is A Virus

No. 645: Sarton and Sense by John H. Lienhard

Today, science flows from our nerve endings. 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.

We're at a 1983 lecture in memory of George Sarton. Sarton was a great historian of science. Now the speaker, Derek deSolla Price, puts a new perspective on history and science.

He says that science doesn't feed technology. Rather, technology springs from raw human perception. We build machines without understanding them. Science usually struggles to explain the things we make, after the fact.

Price tells of scientists trying to understand the steam engine. When those great chuffing machines appeared in the English landscape, they demanded explanation. Scientists erected thermodynamics not to create engines, but to explain them.

Price looks at 19th-century chemistry. It didn't flow from Lavoisier's theories. It was driven instead by the remarkable things that happened when Galvani created the electric battery.

Knowing begins when we expose our senses to experience. Our technology helps us do that. When Galileo made one of the first telescopes, he suddenly created scientific revelations artificially. The new 17th-century instruments gave us sudden comprehension through the senses rather than through the mind.

Since Price speaks in memory of George Sarton, let's meet Sarton's daughter May. Her lean, taut poetry lays bare the revelation we gain through the raw nerves of human experience. We walk the windy woods with May Sarton as she looks for the source of revelation. Hear the way she threads through her senses in a mounting pursuit of understanding. She says,

I carried two things around in my mind
Walking the woods and thinking how to say
Shiver of poplar leaves in a light wind,
Threshing of water over troubled stones
A brook rippling its interrupted way --
Two things that bring a tremor to the bones.

And now I carry around in my head a third.
The force of it stops me as I walk the wood,
Three things for which no one has found a word --
Wind in the poplar, tremor under the skin

Deep in the flesh a shiver of more than blood

Modern science let sensate experience shape understanding. Galvani's electric battery was "a tremor in the bones" of scientists, make no mistake. The steam engine was "a shiver of more than blood."

Yet sensate knowledge was the beginning of our notion of a detached scientific method. We've tried to let sensate data speak directly to the printed page. We've tried to clean science up -- to take it away from the baseness in which it begins.

But we can't do that. Science rises in the realm of the senses. Science precisely seeks May Sarton's moment when "things for which no one has found a word" are made "wholly one."

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

(Theme music)

deSolla Price, D., Sealing Wax and String: a philosophy of the experimenter's craft and its role in the genesis of high technology. American Assn. for the Advancement of Science. May 1983.