We were living in Houston when John H. Lienhard started broadcasting a novel radio series from the University of Houston. The Engines of Our Ingenuity is still a weekday National Public Radio program having been first aired locally on KUHF-FM Houston back in 1988. I used to listen to it as often as I could while commuting and I’ve often tuned to it when I’ve been back in Houston.
The format is simple. Each episode is a three minute story to illustrate how human creativity impacts culture. Today, there are over 3200 episodes on the website free to hear and/or read.
I hadn’t thought about ‘engines’ for a few years. Then I started reading Matt Ridley’s How Innovation Works and wondered how to consider this new book. So I’ve listened to a few ‘engines’ episodes over the last 24 hours just to remind myself of things I might have heard while commuting. I was also hoping to broaden my current sense of how ingenuity, creativity, invention and innovation might interact.
A Concern About Reality is a topic that was of great interest in the late 80s. I was involved in ‘bleeding-edge’ data processing and visualisation at the time. Our objective was to render three-dimensional seismic subsurface imaging more interpretable. This was such of such economic importance that vast and competitive supercomputing facilities would soon be built for this single purpose.
I remain interested in large scale computing in general, having retired a couple of years ago while working on a project in which I was insisting we future proof the data. I wanted to incorporate over-sampling in order to leverage computing technology anticipated not to be available for another decade. We’re used to waiting on computing to catch-up with human minds. We’ve known the maths since before Christiaan Huygens died in 1695.
Here’s another thing. The energy exploration industry has been constantly transcribing enormous data stores to ever denser media since digital dawned. And what’s more, mirroring it at least twice in order to survive unforeseen catastrophes. I could go on about how media and data shelf life varies from industry to industry but that’s a digression for another day.
A Concern About Reality also stands out because we have family involved in the animation industry. I can’t recall if I heard the original broadcast but reading the transcript today, I see it covers the kinds of things that many in my industry were thinking about at the time. These things are still relevant in many media and visualisation businesses.
Lienhard said in 1988 that ‘We’re no longer sure whether we’re looking at a picture created by an artist, a camera, or a computer. The computer can make the sound of a concert grand piano that will fool me. As the computer speaks to our senses as well as to our minds, we start having trouble finding the line between realities of the machine and realities outside it.’
Each technology has limited shelf life and Lienhard realised the tapes of his original broadcast were beginning to degrade. So he revised and updated many early scripts and re-broadcast the new versions.
The new version of A Concern About Reality was retitled Looking For Reality and starts ‘Computer-generated special effects had hardly touched the movies back in 1987. That year I heard Ken Torrance from Cornell University talk about his work on computer graphics.’
There was about a decade between the two ‘engines’ broadcasts. And today, we are two decades further into ‘having trouble finding the line between realities of the machine and realities outside it’.
The ingenuity that created the graphics in question was not considered an inventive step. It was a brilliant innovation within a century of mathematical development that continues to be incrementally improved.
In Ken Torrance’s case, he was often ahead of his time. The industry standard Torrance-Sparrow reflection model was based on his 1967 PhD. It was an innovative mathematical model for reflections that replaced 1920s microfacet theory. You should be in awe every time you look at an animation of a reflection, especially those from plastic surfaces.
However, you’ll be satisfied if your disbelief is suspended during the animated movie or your gaming. That’s the measure of Torrance’s success. You don’t even notice the animation of the reflection because it matches your expectations.
Giant’s shoulders are often hidden from view.
There is potential for several meanings in the title of the series The Engines of our Ingenuity. Contemporary usage has it that engines are devices that convert energy to mechanical power. The sense that most interests me is that we are the ingenuity engines. Renaissance folk would have known engines as gadgets or labour saving devices. Our brains, when trained appropriately, are indeed labour saving devices. Perhaps this says a lot about the maturity of Roman philosophy or conceptualisation because for them ingenium referred to the innate qualities that give us words (in English at least) for ingenuity and engine both.