VIII. It’s Only a Pipe Dream

I have come to believe engineering is a lot like making a smoking pipe.

(Now, I wouldn’t be much of an American if I didn’t pull out my theoretical safety scissors and emphasize that I said “making” and not “smoking.” I trust we are all mature enough here to handle this analogy without it influencing the decisions you make in your life, though if it’s going to be really bothersome and you think it might give you bad ideas, kindly skip the next few paragraphs.)

But back to the pipe….

There are many things you can do with a pipe. You can have a political discussion about its use and the subsequent health effects, maybe even write laws concerning whether, with whom, where and how it can be used. You could analyze its part in development of socio-economic systems, use it as a prop in popular film or as the subject of a philosophical argument. Or, perhaps, as in the case with some Native American’s the pipe’s function is more liturgical, carrying by smoke the prayers and pleas of a person from inside the lungs to the Great Spirit in the sky.


If I wanted to be poetic for a minute I might say the universe is the dust from God’s pipe. Running your hand across the bowl or pushing your fingers through the smoke swirls has nothing to do with the actual carving of the device. Carving takes a different kind of knowledge; it’s one of materials, tools, geometry, math. And, it requires lots and lots of practice.

And practice can be rough. I didn’t go into engineering completely cold; the three months preceding the start of the term were spent re-teaching myself grade 12 math and physics. Still, nothing really prepared me for what was coming that first semester. Two hours a day spent in a hot car for the commute…8 hours of classes… the 4+ expected hours of homework. Rough.  By the end of the year the age-old calluses on my writing fingers were thicker than they’d ever been, ripped &/or bitten to bleeding from the stress. It was a lot, but it was even worse when I’d find something really beautiful or something that didn’t quite make sense. That’s when the art and science start to clash, when I’d want to just stop and think about what I saw, to try and connect it to other things and see where it goes, but that’s not how you learn the skills you need to learn. Sure it can help a little bit, but mostly you just have to keep carving. Keep carving and carving until the desk is covered in splintered erasers and pencil dust. More than once I felt like the ballerina in Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, caught in a mindless ritual, dancing herself to death.

But it’s not exhaustive all at once. There are levels. It’s only at the last stage, when I’m totally exhausted and buried up to my eyes in formulae and eraser dust, that the naked men come out; standing with a sort of wistful solitude that offers a breath of escapism just long enough to make things bearable again. One in particular turned out to be especially helpful… one equally-exhausted, slightly-drunk man who may have saved my math.

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