Truth in a Piston

Truth in a Piston
Profile photo of Garet Garrett

Piston_of_DAT_engineOriginally published in A Time is Born. Reprinted from

There was never any absolute necessity for the machine. Life could exist without it, only, of course on a much smaller tapestry. It is use that creates the necessity for the machine. The scientific use of physical and mechanical knowledge to increase both the agricultural and the industrial means of life has made it possible in our time to sustain on the earth a population that could not otherwise exist, that would otherwise have perished before it was born. This is a fact we keep forgetting. It is the fact that relates human life to science in a vital sense.

There is no way to go back.

A wish to live again in the past is very old. The future is unknown, the present is turmoil, but the past may be anything we like to think it was. We may perfect it by wistful imagination and live in it as in our dreams. Man has always had in him the myth of a golden age, a time to go back to, a yearning for return. All of this revolt against science, this fear of the machine, this notion that knowledge may be leading civilization to an abyss, may be and probably is referable to that ancient, infantile myth surviving unawares in the modern mentality.

No rational being would exchange the whole of the present for the whole of the past, only parts of one for the other. Well, that is impossible. Nor can any troublesome part of the present be got rid of by the alternative, sometimes suggested, of standing still. The science holiday again.

It is no more possible to stop than it is to go back. Why this is true is not so easily stated. A principle of acceleration acts. We know it and feel it, our everyday calculations include it, and yet it is difficult to say what it is. Progress, though it were progress forward only and not upward, must be at an accelerating rate. Knowledge increases in that manner; so does wanting.

Epochs and ages we speak of in a way to make believe we understand them. We know much more about the present than about any past age or epoch, and yet how little we understand the present!

A way to see his own works and interpret them to himself is one of man’s great needs and he is not sufficiently aware of it. When he is he will find the instruments. What they will be like we do not know, any more than it was known beforehand what the telescope or microscope would be like.

One of the classics of science is the story of Herschel, a musician whose interest in the heavens led him to become an astronomer. He had first to master mathematics. Then, as he could not afford to buy a telescope, he resolved to make one; and for this purpose he had to master the science of optics and the technology of instrument making. From a musical performance he would rush back to his lodgings to resume the labor of grinding and polishing reflecting mirrors by hand. After hundreds of failures he produced a telescope equal to any in the world and discovered the planet Uranus.

Such zeal is common among workers in the tradition of science. Ways therefore have been found to search the remoteness of the heavens, to discover the past of many things, to apprehend the unknown and to see the invisible, each way with its method or science.

But where is any science of the present? We know more about the movements of astronomical bodies than about the play of everyday economic forces. There is a way whereby man may contemplate his own thoughts and yet no proper or deeply considered way whereby he may contemplate his own works and refer their significance to his understanding. Philosophical contemplation of the universe as a mechanism is a grand activity of the mind; the machine that has appeared suddenly in the earth is an object of momentous meaning, and the philosophical mind is loath to perceive it; the aesthetic mind will not.

Berdyaev writes a blind and terrific passage on man machined:

What had happened then in the history of mankind? How are we to explain the fact that the whole order and rhythm of life had undergone a radical change? Why did the decline of the Renaissance, already apparent in the nineteenth century, become much more accentuated in the twentieth? I am deeply convinced that an unexampled revolution and crisis of the human species had taken place, one that cannot be recognized by such outward signs as had distinguished the French Revolution from year to year, a revolution that was, in fact, immeasurably more profound. I have in mind the changes associated with the introduction of machinery into the life of human societies.

I believe that the triumphant advent of the machine constitutes one of the greatest revolutions in human destiny. We have not yet made a just estimate of its importance. The advent of the machine brings about a revolution in all spheres of life. It rips man away from the bowels of nature and changes the whole rhythm of his life. Formerly, an organic tie had existed between man and nature, and his communal life had been governed by a natural rhythm. The machine radically modifies this relationship.

It steps in between man and nature; and it conquers not only the natural elements for the benefit of man, but also, in the process, man himself. It both liberates and enslaves him once again. If man had formerly depended upon nature and had, as a result, lived a meagre life, the invention of machinery and the resultant mechanization of life while in some ways enriching him yet impose a new form of dependence on him, a dependence, perhaps, even more tyrannical than that exercised by nature.

A new and mysterious force, alien to both man and nature, now makes its appearance in human life; and this third, unnatural and non-human element acquires a terrible power over both man and nature. It disintegrates the natural human forms. It disintegrates and divides man so that he ceases to be the natural being he had been from time immemorial.

And there he leaves it.

The machine will reward contemplation. Try it. Any machine will do — the small gasoline engine on one’s own premises. There is much to be learned from bringing the mind to dwell upon it. The history of the human mind is there. Circles, true angles and the revolving wheel first presented to the intuition of man as symbols of mystery and supernatural power. That is to say, they were seized by acts of religious and aesthetic perception. Reality has also that way of disclosing itself long before the facts are found out. Many years before it could be proved scientifically at all the Greeks deduced the sphericity of the earth from their aesthetic sense. The sphere was the ideal form of a solid; therefore the earth was round.

The science of experimental mechanics, raising such forms as the circle, the angle and the wheel to the power of function, was an achievement of the reason, working practically.

Invisible in the machine are physical laws. Man did not invent these laws. They are inherent in the universe. But he had to discover the facts and then formulate them as laws, and this was the work of the speculative faculty, working in abstraction.

How strange that the machine you are looking at, acting by what is proved and proving that by which it acts, should be a form of truth the signs of which first appeared in superstitious rites of magic and had then to be pursued through millennia of error! Even this may not yet be its whole reality. Very likely not. What perversity is error! Always the wrong way first and the right way last. In every case the right way, once we find it, is so direct and obvious that to have missed it seems the strangest fact of all.

So there may be many ways of arriving at truth. To the reality now acting in machine forms, religion, art, philosophy and science have all contributed by moving knowledge one step at a time, with no sense of direction, no goal in sight, and yet steadily hitherward. The spectacle of the human mind exerting itself blindly, erringly, victoriously, to bring about a condition it cannot foresee is utterly mysterious to the reason.

And why suppose there is or ever will be a period to that mystery?

The internal combustion engine was invented by grand tinkers and mechanics, whose only idea was to make it work. It was already working, in millions of automobiles, before there was any scientific understanding of what happened in the cylinder. It was known only that a mixture of gas and air was compressed by the piston coming up, then received a spark and exploded, driving the piston down. But why did the engine sometimes knock? Nobody knew; and not knowing was a limitation on the further development of the engine. We could have gone on with it as it was, and it was good enough for all ordinary purposes, but until that question was answered there could never be such a thing as a two-thousand horsepower engine weighing no more than one big horse, and that was the kind of engine that was going to be needed for the airplane that was coming.

Now regard a physicist in the Bureau of Standards at Washington at the beautiful play of exploding gas in soap bubbles. If you ask him what he is doing he will say he is making thermodynamic studies of gaseous explosive reactions. This is pure research. He is not thinking of any particular problem. He is curious only about the behavior of gases. Yet many technicians and grand tinkers are watching him intently because he may find out something that will tell them why their engine sometimes knocks.

In the research laboratory of a great automobile corporation the approach is from a different angle. The reason for the knock is in the fuel, namely, gasoline. Well then, what is gasoline?

They break gasoline down to its parts, explore each part separately, and know what that stuff is. Then they spread out before them the atomic table and begin to search for an organic compound which added to gasoline will produce a more favorable happening in the engine cylinder. They have no idea what it will be; they know only what they want it to do, and there is no certainty that it exists.

Now, the number of organic compounds that may be constructed from the atomic table, given an inch of type each for description, would fill hundreds of books. For all practical purposes the number is infinite. Therefore when you go looking for a certain compound, character unknown, that must do a certain thing, you are looking for one grain of sand on the ocean beach.

It is impossible to search the beach one grain at a time. You can only pick up a grain here and another there and examine it hopefully. So they explore the atomic table, trying this compound and then that one, and after four years they are discouraged.

They have found compounds that make gasoline better and compounds that make it worse, and each one is marked on the table. So there is a point here and another over there and one away up near the top, hundreds of them, in fact, but there is no drift to follow and they are sick of just groping around.

Then one man with nothing else to do sticks pegs into those points on the flat atomic map — an inch peg for gasoline, a half-inch peg for a compound half as good as gasoline, a longer peg for one a little better, and so on. Still he discerns nothing.

One day the boss scientist comes in to see how they are getting on. Seeing the pegs, he says: “What’s this?” It is fumbling they say. Nothing has come of it. And they feel even a little foolish at having been found playing with the pegs. The boss stares at the pegs a long time, says, “Well, try anything,” and turns away. At the door he looks back and for no reason at all stoops to bring his eyes level with the table, and squints.

Suddenly he becomes excited. “Come here,” he says. “Look as I am looking. I think I see a warp across the tops of those pegs. Look! Don’t you see they tend slightly to grow taller in that direction to the upper left?” The others look as he is looking.

They see it too.

Not consciously intending to do it they have raised the atomic table to the third dimension. There is a warp in this third dimension and it gives them for the first time a sense of direction. Following the warp they come to something nobody had ever thought of — a lead compound which, added to gasoline, does create a more favorable happening in the engine cylinder. And at that moment the great airplane engine that was yet to appear became a possibility.

The knock is the machine’s own protest against error. The evil in itself is not serious. But the sound is one we hate to hear. Sound of error. This is significant. We should probably find by going deep enough for it that man’s passion to perfect the machine, even the sound of it, though the upper motive be rational or economic, is really from the essence of his nature. It is as if he were proving something to himself. What science continually and rationally seeks is the constant. What the restless spirit seeks is certitude.

Belief in human perfectibility is a faith for which the evidence is weak and conflicting. But in the machine man finds the principle of perfectibility. To increase its precision, sweeten its rhythm and raise its power to any sign, he has only to discover the true laws of its being and bring them into a relation of harmony. Then logic is implicit in its behavior.

It may be the spirit will not change, but from perfecting, minding, and living with machines the mentality does. Certainly a machine environment will induce new habits of thinking. To act upon a machine with passion, malice or impulsive ignorance is to wreck it, and the lesson is final. To command its power you are obliged to act upon it with knowledge, reflection, and understanding.

It is not obedient to you; it obeys laws you cannot alter or corrupt. And since you can neither alter nor corrupt them you may trust them. They cannot fail.

The garage mechanic is not a scientist; yet he thinks scientifically. Observe him. There is trouble in the mechanism. The rhythm breaks. The power is lost or it may be only that there is a wrong sound. He takes your facts and entertains your opinion.

Yet he does nothing overt at once. He listens, reflects, speeds up the engine and slows it down, cuts out one cylinder at a time by shorting the current across the tops of the spark plugs, drives the car around the block, then leans against his bench and lights a cigarette. “I think I know where the trouble is,” he says. With that he enters the mechanism at a certain point, goes to the spot and there it is — what he thought it was.

Now consider what has occurred in this familiar instance. What was to be found was X, namely, the cause of trouble. There were many facts in several categories — historical facts of doubtful importance from you, facts of knowledge in his experience, facts of sensation in the particular case. How has he acted upon these? By methods of analysis, analogy, synthesis, as if, is as, induction, deduction, generalization, and hypothesis. He may not know what an hypothesis is. If you should say to him that he has been thinking scientifically, or explain to him the process by which he arrived at his I think, he would be bored. He thinks scientifically without knowing that he does and calls himself a troubleshooter. The way of it comes from experience.

Sooner from observing machines than from observing ourselves we may come to precise ways of thinking, to an understanding of the natural principles of equivalence and reciprocation, applicable also to human affairs, and to such a generalization as that a thing is for what it is for.

Each part of a machine is for what it is for. Each machine in the great scheme of machines is for what it is for. We make machines with organs and chemistries that simulate creature reactions to stimuli. All of them feel. Some of them see. There are now some to think mathematically, these substituting in drudgery for the mind as others substitute for the body; but how stupid it would be to expect them to think politically or philosophically.

Perhaps man shall never know what he is for. Nevertheless he might very well know what his institutions and methods and specializations are for. He might know, for example, that physical science is neither for prophecy nor for handing down the social law. One would think the scientific mind as such would know this. But there has lately come over it a rage to prophesy, to say not only what is but what will be and should be in all things. And having said what ought to be believed it goes so far as to resent in the popular mind a lively skepticism, forgetting that skepticism is its own first virtue.

Americans are eminently the machine people. They have more machines than all other people in the world. Here the authority of science, resting upon facts and upon the thing that works, is such that no absurdity can diminish it. Credulity for that which may be demonstrated is unlimited. For the new fact there is a kind of appetite.

Here at the same time is a skepticism from which science is no more immune than phrenology. Science giving law to man’s works is unchallenged; undertaking to give him also the law of his being, it is challenged. The behavior of mind in the fundamentalist, even in Tennessee, is somewhat like this. He asks: “Is there a scientific theory of the origin of human beings that can be proved on such evidence as would hang a man in Tennessee?”

The answer is no. In that case he will believe what he likes.

But believing in the theological doctrine of the special creation of man he will not for that reason reject a scientific fact in plant or animal biology, say it is impossible to make a fuelless engine, or impugn science as a whole. He prays for rain. Science, he reads, thinks it can find a way to make rain. He remembers with a smile that science not long ago classed the idea of rain making with ideas of magic. If science can make it rain, so much the better. The fundamentalist will buy his rain, but he will not stop praying, nor will he agree that fact knowledge is the only kind of knowledge there is. Who shall say this is not a sound attitude toward science?

Knowledge, too, is for what it is for. A preference for the useful use of scientific knowledge lies deep in the American genius. It was the theme of Ben Franklin who may be taken as the founder of science in this country. A text for it will be found in one of the forgotten Lyceum Lectures delivered by Abraham Lincoln before he was elected President. “All creation,” he said, “is a mine, and every man a miner. In the beginning the mine was unopened and the miner stood naked and knowledgeless upon it…. Man is not the only animal that labors, but he is the only one that improves his workmanship.” And how strange, he added, that after the discovery of steam power it was two thousand years before the amazing thought occurred to anyone that it would move useful machines as well as toys.

This perfectly illustrates the difference between discovery and invention. Practical people will be very inventive in the application of scientific knowledge; it does not follow that they will make many new discoveries of their own. Americans are the most inventive people in the world; they excel in technological research, that is, in finding new ways to apply existing knowledge.

Their record in the field of pure science is less impressive, which is owing perhaps to the fact that even here the end is practical. Their idea of pure research is not to improve their standing in the world’s hall of fame; the aim is to keep workers in the field of technology supplied with an abundant store of fact knowledge.

When Abraham Lincoln was speaking of discovery and invention in that Lyceum Lecture, year 1860, there were only five kinds of power in the world — man power, animal power, water, wind, and steam. Since then two new powers have been added. Gas and electricity. At any instant another may be discovered.

Where? There is no telling where or what or under what circumstances. The unknown is nowhere, meaning it is everywhere. It is in the common occurrence, in the familiar object, in the artless question, in the queer twist of a thought.

Man’s passion to pursue it is a fact he can give no account of. Always he has been afraid. Does he go on notwithstanding, or is it because he is afraid that he goes on? In one case a lonely hero in the universe; in the other case a brave planetarian who would sooner meet the dangers of knowledge than bear the terrors of superstition. Once he gets used to the idea it is much less appalling to live on a sphere whirling in space than on a flat world with edges sticking into the void. Life cannot fall off.

There is also the simple probability that he is a child in existence naturally growing up. Knowledge happens to him as he wants and needs it. That by taming wild energy he will imperil his soul more than he did by taming the wild grasses and beasts is absurd to suppose; and that it is any more likely he will destroy civilization with machines than it was that he would achieve that calamity with clubs cannot be proved as a scientific fact. As to that, your opinion or mine is as good as that of science. Whatever it is that runs ahead of us and beckons us on — it is not afraid.

Profile photo of Garet Garrett

Garet Garrett, born Edward Peter Garrett, was an American journalist and author, who is noted for his opposition to the New Deal and U.S. involvement in the Second World War.

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