My weblog ELECTRON BLUE, which concentrated on science and mathematics, ran from 2004-2008. It is no longer being updated. My current blog, which is more art-related, is here.

Sun, 09 Oct, 2005

The Little Factory

I've been solving problems in "simple machine" physics. I don't solve them without the book's help, usually. I often lose track of the problem and miss noticing important data or forms of data, which then gives me the wrong answer. Other times, I try to review the formula given in the book but find it inconsistent. Sometimes, for instance, it's a ratio of load to effort that gives you the number you need, and other times, it's effort to load. Or I have to remember to calculate not the mass, but the weight of an object before I can proceed with finding out how much force it takes to push it up an inclined plane. I will probably forget most of this, but when I encounter it again, it will be familiar to me.

I have cranked imaginary cranks, tightened virtual vises, pushed loads up fantasy hills, pulled pulleys and levered levers. I have even lifted non-existent loads with a theoretical hydraulic jack. I had no need for my aforementioned heavy boots to do this work, just my old pencil and a pad of paper. I continue to live in an industrial environment which demands no physical effort, in which there is no risk of anything falling on me. "A torque of 50 Newton/meters is applied to a gear with 30 teeth," I am informed. The gear and its system does not exist, at least not this particular system. Or perhaps it exists in a kind of miniature virtual world of the imagination. Some cosmologists, calculating theories almost infinitely more complex than my gears and levers, invoke what they call "toy universes" to help them out, where all the complicating factors have been reduced to only a few variables so that their theory will calculate cleanly. Perhaps that's where I am, in a little factory where work goes on in its full complexity, though as a giant I see only the basic, simple mechanics I am tasked to learn.

I have a friend named Michael (one of many Michaels I know) who grew up in an industrial town in northern Ohio, though he now lives in the suburbs of Philadelphia. He is a metallurgical engineer who is also a theater set designer and builder. He is an expert in historical metal industry in America, especially steelmaking such as used to go on in his home town. Using both his industrial knowledge and his set design skills, he has built a tiny model of his old home town in his basement, complete with moving HO-scale trains, and everything from farmland to city blocks to stores and gas stations. The masterpiece of his miniature city, though, is a model of a steel mill and its surrounding buildings, along with an ore boat and the raw materials piled up in heaps. If you peer closely at this wonderful creation, you can see simulated glowing ingots on rail carts, open hearth furnaces, rolling mills, and administration offices. He even applied simulated grit and dust to the surfaces, to make it look realistic. And it is populated by tiny workers, no more than an inch high, directing trains or moving heavy objects, using all those machines which I have been levering and pushing and pulling with numbers. The cities have little people and cars (all dated to the early 50s, as this is a period piece based on nostalgic memories of a time of industrial prosperity). There is even a thumbnail-size farmwife standing on the porch of a farmhouse no bigger than a box of cookies, with cornstalks the size of matchsticks.

I call this miniature city "MichaelCosm," though Michael has never given it a name. When I visit Michael and his wife Pat, they know that the first thing I need to see in their house is the world in the basement. Michael leads me down into the blackness, and then turns the light on. He throws the switch for the trains to run, and MichaelCosm comes to life.
"You know," I say to him, "this place goes on living when you're not here. The people have their own lives, their own stories, their own work and play and sadness and joy. They have no idea that they are miniature creations. Perhaps they think you're God."
Michael doesn't answer. He's an engineer, and engineers don't think in that fanciful way. He just wants to make the trains run on time and keep the steel moving. Or at least that's what he says.
I always tell him that I wished that his steel mill could light up with fiery light and puff steam, just like real ones. Michael says that other miniature builders have simulated this with fiber-optics and artfully placed lighting, but it is very expensive and time-consuming, and he can't afford it right now.
"But could a factory this tiny actually produce steel?" I ask. "Could cupfuls of coke and ore be cooked in blast furnaces, and pour peanut-size ingots to be turned into inch-wide girders and walnut-sized car bodies?"
"No," he replies, "the scale is too small. It couldn't work. We just have to imagine it."
And so that's where I stand now, calculating simple work as an engineer in my little factory, thinking of those inch-high workers in their hardhats, toiling diligently so that I can learn my physics.

Posted at 3:32 am | link

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