Poetry For Engineers, Part 1 – Thinking About Machines

July 20th, 2011 § 4 comments

The way we teach people about poetry is strange.


Imagine that there is a child named Robert who had grown up in a far off and isolated village, in a place with no modern vehicles whatsoever. Imagine if Robert asked you, “What is a car?” How would you answer such a question?


I would say to Robert, “Let’s go and visit my friend, he knows the answer. He lives one hundred miles away.”


“A hundred miles?” Robert would say, “That’s too far to walk! We will become very tired, and the journey will take a long time.”


“In that case,” I would reply, “how can we visit my friend without walking?”

And we would think together for a time. And perhaps my student would say, “Someone could carry us, and then we wouldn’t get tired.”


“That’s true, but whoever carried us would get tired very quickly. We probably wouldn’t be able to find someone who would carry us all that way. But what if we found something bigger and stronger than a person?”


“A horse!” Robert would reply, happy to have solved my puzzle. “We can ride a horse!”


And so we would talk about riding a horse, and if he were interested, we could talk about the reasons horses are bigger and stronger and faster than humans. After we had talked for a while, I might ask, “But what if we wanted to take our luggage with us, and there was too much to fit on the horse?”


And we would talk again about this difficult problem. My student might suggest using many horses, and I would explain that the two of us had too much luggage to carry on two horses, and a horse couldn’t carry luggage easily without a rider.


“Perhaps if we had some kind of platform we could attach to the horse? Then it could drag us and our luggage along?”


What a marvellous and clever idea! It would lead to a talk about friction, and why it was that an ice-skater could travel so much faster on a frozen lake than a person without ice-skates. “A platform could carry all of our luggage, but it would be very hard for the horses to drag.”


And eventually, with some prompting, we might think about a rock rolling down a hill. Why is it that some rocks roll freely, but others stay put or slide? And we would talk about roundness, and think about ways we could use this interesting property of rolling to help with our own problem. And hopefully, after a good deal of head-scratching, we would come up with an axle, and a wheel, and a platform, and a horse, and we would have our first wagon. We might tinker for a while, and find that round was the best shape for wheels, and that four wheels on two axles made the wagon stable.


And Robert would be very pleased indeed at his cleverness, for he had solved my problem.


“But,” I would ask again, “what if we want to visit my friend very quickly, because it is very late in the day and he will be going to bed soon?”


“Well,” my student would reply, screwing up his eyes and thinking hard, “we would need an animal that can run faster than a horse.”


“That’s a good answer.” I’d say. “But what if we wanted to get there even faster? Faster than any animal could pull us?”


And we would think together about this problem for a long time, for it is very hard to solve. I would have to give clues to my student. I would say “I have made an exciting discovery! I have found a substance in the ground called coal that releases a great deal of energy when it burns!”


“That’s all well and good,” Robert would reply impatiently, “but I don’t see how it helps with making our wagon go faster!”


“When I heat water with coal,” I would say gently, “it generates steam. The steam builds up pressure.”


And I would explain why steam contains such great amounts of energy, and talk about the nature of pressurized gasses.


“I see what you’re getting at now!” he would say, his face glowing with understanding, “You think that we can use the power of steam to help us move our wagon! If we can contain the pressurized steam, we can release it to force the wheels to turn!”


And we would discuss how such a system could work, and the clever mechanical tricks it would need. We would talk about the nature of pistons and turbines, and the ingenious systems to convert the back-and-forth motion of a piston to the around-and-around motion of a wheel.


And Robert would be very satisfied, for together we had invented a wonderful machine for transporting people and luggage at incredible speed.


And finally, we would talk about oil, and petroleum, and roads, and the ways in which an internal combustion engine is the same as a steam engine, and the ways in which it is different. We would talk about brakes and gears and suspension and steering wheels and differentials and windscreens and all the other useful parts of cars, and what they are for, and how they work, and how each piece, in its own little way, helps the machine to move people quickly and easily and safely.


“So there you have it!” I would say in the end. “I don’t think you need to visit my friend after all! Do you understand what a car is now?”


“Yes!” Robert would reply.


“Now hang on!” you might say, “that sounds like a very long and complicated explanation. Why don’t you just show your pupil a car, and then answer his questions?”


Well, let’s say there is a second child identical to Robert in every way except for his name, which is Charles. Instead of tediously explaining the development of a car to Charles, I show him a big, red, classic sports car. I let him play with the windscreen-wipers and turn on the headlamps. I show him the leather seats and the silver exhaust pipe. I take Charles out for a drive: we roll down the electric windows and fill up the big fuel tank, and on the way home we put down the roof and some pretty girls wave at us.


“So there you have it!” I would say to Charles. “Do you understand what a car is now?”


“Yes!” Charles would reply.


And if you were to ask Robert, “What is a car?” he might say that it was a device for transporting people and cargo across large distances at great speeds, and that it used wheels and axles to reduce friction, and that it was powered by an energy source that fuelled the mechanical work of turning the wheels, creating motion.


And if you were to ask Charles the same question, he might say that a car was something big and red with four wheels and headlamps and windscreen wipers and leather seats and an exhaust pipe, and that it travelled around and you filled up its big tank with liquid and it made pretty girls wave at you.


And if, in the future, cars have three wheels or six wheels or are powered by electricity or nuclear radiation or compressed gas, Robert will be interested and full of questions about how these new systems work and why they are more efficient than the old systems. But Charles, poor Charles will be confused and perhaps even a little angry. “Those aren’t cars!” he will shout. “Cars are red and have four wheels!”


My opinion, as you have no doubt worked out, is that most people learn about poetry in the same way that Charles learned about cars. Most people learn how to recognise a poem without understanding what it is for or how it works. Naturally, when they read a poem that is even a little different from the poetry they grew up with, they become lost. They lack the tools and confidence to tinker with the new poem to see which parts of it are better and which parts of it are not as good.


But what if we taught people about poetry in the same way that we taught Robert about cars?


The ambition of this series of articles is to construct a poem in the same way that we constructed a car with Robert. Like that car, the poem will be very basic. I am not a skilled poet, just as I am not a skilled engineer. But I hope that by building a poem openly and trying to explain its purpose at each stage of construction, I might allow some people to think about poetry in a way they have not done so before. Poetry can seem complicated and mysterious, but any person who is interested and willing to try can understand it very well when it is explained clearly.


What’s more, understanding poetry leads to a deeper understanding of language itself, which is a very valuable thing. Humans spend so much time exchanging words with one another that learning more about language can mean learning more about life.


In the next article in the series, Part 2: A Problem To Solve, we shall think about the strengths and weaknesses of using language to share experiences.



§ 4 Responses to Poetry For Engineers, Part 1 – Thinking About Machines"

  • Ivan Verkempinck says:

    (got here via Reddit.)
    Like Plato’s cave, thinking up “The Allegory of Transportation” to explain why poetry is recondite. I don’t know where to shelve this, art or philosphy?
    But what a great idea!
    Will be back to read more.

  • Ivan Verkempinck says:

    Isn’t the problem with poetry the same as with anything else that takes more than a basic understanding? Mathematics, philosophy, (classical) music, (bio)chemistry,… seem – and are!- all hermetic to the unsuspecting passerby.
    The learning curve.

    • Gabriel says:

      Some very interesting thoughts Ivan. I think the difference with poetry is that the learning curve can seem transparent to the uninitiated. I hope that if this series of posts is successful it will at least map out the slopes and angles.

  • Tyler Brainerd says:

    Very interesting! I’m hooked.

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You are currently reading Poetry For Engineers, Part 1 – Thinking About Machines, part of a blog about writing by Gabriel Brady.