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 like the slave trade and think up reasons why someone would use one in the first place. Perhaps the user saw his grandfather with one so it enforces connotations of masculine authority; or maybe the user’s a woman who’s trying to thwart traditional gender boundaries. Perhaps it’s a social thing. Perhaps it’s soothing or maybe rebellious. 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.

You could get more imaginative and call it a snarfblat, write a film where it leads Nicholas Cage to steal the Declaration of Independence, or use it as a symbol in a scifi/fantasy novel. You could use it to begin a discussion about Plato’s forms, or even make like Magritte and draw a picture of one above the phrase “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” as in The Treachery (or Perfidy) of Images.


Lots and lots of things can give you insight and appreciation for (or disgust at) the idea and craftsmanship of a pipe, but none of these things, not one, can help you make a pipe. And that’s the difference between the arts and engineering.

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. Two hours a day spent in a hot car for the commute…8 hours of classes… the 4+ expected hours of homework. Rough. Plus, I’m old school with my note-taking. I write everything down regardless of what notes they put online because that’s just what I was taught to do. 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, which, for me, almost always went something like this:

The Feynman Stage:

Everything is exciting, beautiful and mildly intimidating. Not-at-all to barely even tired.

Richard Feynman: “Ode to a Flower”

The “Looking for an Argument” Stage:

Math is starting to get real now, but I saw this thing that’s really interesting, and I come from the humanities, which is basically one big discussion anyway so can we please just talk about this? Like, I need to talk about this. (But with proper thinking, please, not a condescending explanation like I’m twelve.)

Mild to moderately tired. Getting slightly edgy now so likely also stressed.

Monty Python’s Flying Circus: “Argument Clinic”

The “I Hate Newton & Most Especially Gravity” Stage:

Obnoxious. Math is just obnoxious. It’s not even making sense now but everyone seems to think it’s spectacular and y’all are just full of it.

I’m not sure why I always hate on gravity so much at this stage. Maybe it has something to do with my fear of falling from heights or the trauma of watching people jump to their deaths on live television during a certain, historic September. But really, I think it mostly has to do with Newton and his darned definitions. The man literally defined force F = ma, and the unit of force, kg * m * s^-2 is called a Newton. But he also defined universal gravitation m1 * m2 * G * r^-2 = F, and the two only marry if you stuff a whole bunch of extra units on the ridiculously small constant value, G. There’s likely some deep physical meaning as to why everyone is okay with this, but it was never told to us in first year engineering. And I come from the humanities after all which gives me reason to think heretical things in the hallowed halls of science, so I don’t care if everyone else thinks otherwise, but G is just sloppy.

Also, while we’re on the subject, Newton also came from the humanities. He may have written the book on physics but he also wrote books on the Bible, so he of all people should have known to put more effort into his theory.

Tired, stressed, now a grumpy *itch.

Wicked: “Defying Gravity”


And then there’s the last stage, when I’m totally exhausted and buried up to my eyes in formulae and eraser dust. It’s then 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.

Next Post: A Dark Room