HE SOMEHOW BRIDGED the divide. For five weeks we slogged, scrutinized, and celebrated together. Hired to teach Strengths of Materials that summer, Doc Zuné managed to entertain us with 3-hours of figurative illustrations each afternoon, to clarify abstractions like: Poisson’s Ratio, Shear Stress and Cantilevered Beams. Especially more, we looked forward to his comical anecdotes during breaks.
Ol’ Zuné was an outsider. An adjunct professor on loan from NASA, his uncharacteristic persona and real-world examples boosted his allure. He once serenaded us with the tale of his life’s journey in the enchanting melody of his Houston-style Texas drawl, “I studied Mechanical Engineering because I didn’t like Structures. I wanted to be a Rocket Scientist, like every other kid from the 1950’s raised on Buck Rogers. When NASA saw my dissertation though, they assigned me to the Lunar Module (LEM) Team. Designing legs for the Lander, I found myself – at NASA of all places – doing Structures. I thought I might be able to teach Thermodynamics someday at least. That’s close to Rocket Science, right? But when the University found out I worked on the LEM, they assigned me to Strengths of Materials. So here I am teaching Structures. I just can’t seem get away from this stuff! [*pause*] If they ask me back next year though, I’m going to try to teach Thermo!”
Each kid in that class surely made the same mental note just then:
*if that actually happens, you can count me in!
We loved that guy! Zuné wasn’t your typical academic, and our band of misfits weren’t either I suppose. Romantically bookish pragmatics more like, it seemed a divine appointment for that time and place regardless. During another afternoon breather, Zuné told us about the critical “looks-right” and the “beef-it-up” principles of applied engineering. “We just didn’t have the computing power back then. And you’d be surprised – our Safety Factor was less than 1.2 in the lunar environment!” Zuné’s stories sustained us through the enduring parts of that class, and the holistic experience was intriguing enough to draw us back for Round 2 the following year.
You heard it right, Zuné finally got his dream of teaching Thermo!
*I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
Even more captivating than Structures, it was pure delight to learn Thermo from an inquisitive teacher – in the living element – who steadied himself just one step ahead of us on his own enthusiastic journey. Today’s refined kernel from that next summer’s adventure is, “our perspective is largely determined by where you set your datum, the starting point.” Zuné explained that a system might appear endothermic or exothermic – losing or gaining total energy, becoming more or less chaotic – depending on where you set the datum. Your datum defines your interval of observation. A cycle might decrease here, and yet increase right over there beyond an inflection, immediately adjacent.”
Near the beginning of Course 2 he asked, “What’s the heat transfer to a potato in this oven?” pointing at his drawing on the chalk-board.
“It depends on how much heat you lose through the walls, or when the doors are open,” said one in class.
“Nope. No. No! Time zero happens after the doors are closed, when temperatures are already stabilized, and the walls are perfectly lossless!”
“The potato’s already started warming though!” we pleaded.
“This is a theoretical oven, dag nabit! this line (right here) defines our system!” he exclaimed, emphasizing the box with a new dashed outline – another datum.
Ha! That moment was almost ontological! The same phenomena happened twenty years later in Bible Study, when our Associate Pastor asked us about John 15:5,“I am the vine, you are the branches. If you remain in me, and I in you, you will bear much fruit.”
“Those fruits are full of seeds though,” I pondered aloud. “Each seed has the potential to grow into a new tree and bear new fruit, full of their own seeds. Plus the vine only produces fruit when the flower gets pollinated” – changing the dynamic of entire metaphor, it seemed.
“We’re just talking about THIS tree,” she said, defining the system. Mine wasn’t an argument actually, just a statement. I loved everyone in that class, and being curious, wondered what the big picture answer was. To this day, I can’t muse that happy verse without spinning through a whimsically imagined world of walking pomegranates and pines, like human Christmas-trees.
It’s like that with a lot of other fuzzy terms too: theological ones and scientific ones, the both. If you’re having a mind-expanding conversation around any table – and really listen – quite often you’ll hear evidence of four distinct perspectives, with owners none the wiser. We usually assume everyone has the same take on reality as our own. Two people, unbeknownst, might hold polar opposite viewpoints and get along swimmingly. Others, imagining a hypothetical crisis, might argue to virtual death while holding practically similar beliefs. Tension seldom indicates a “right versus wrong situation”, but often highlights competing datums selected as the signpost of our individual vantage (systematic or temporal). I’m struggling to maintain this newer stage, finding it useful to imagine and discuss metaphors from the perspective of multiple datums, one-at-a-time, local and global, mentally following the implications of each, then soaring out to the Universal by grafting into the roots. What if it includes ALL this part too? Or what would happen if it started before this even? What comes first the chicken or the egg type stuff 🙂
Some people might not be comfortable questioning reality that way?
*It helps us better understand ourselves even.
Others might not always have patience for that kind of deduction?
*No rush, wait till you have a slower moment to dwell on things excellent.
Most are invigorated when we finally dive into the richness of ideas, sometimes on a solitary walk, sometimes in group discussion. When things get really bad though, we might consider setting fire to the bridge – or waging war even – above searching out our own personal motives (individual or collective), the possibility of admitting limited insight (to ourselves even), or actually discovering how similar our beliefs are to ‘those other people’ over there!? We might even find out we like other people, forbid it! Rather than dichotomies within the horizon of true universal bounds, most realities might be classified better as snapshots along dynamic spectra. Exposing clashing systems as complementary may require that extra step beyond what feels comfortable – but is almost always worth it. Ignored by most, our perspective of this world (ontologically, theologically, or otherwise) has real significant driving influence on our participation with and treatment of others. Those are the answers to questions like: Is this futile? Is it wrong to help that way? Will any of this matter? Does anyone care? Can I even do a dad-gone thing anyway? Yes you can, they do care, and someone cares about you too, if for no other reason than because you’re both human, on life’s byway at the same time!
Ol’ Doc Zuné was known to say that, “In an adiabatic system, energy is transferred only as work.” Applied to people, that means it takes a great deal of energy – evident as intentional repeat conversations, using precise language, over time – to peacefully draw out commonalities and acceptance of our infinite human differences. In simpler words: understanding others is tough business. An old Mediterranean proverb says, “get wisdom, and though it cost all you have, get understanding.” Since the word “datum” is related to older Greek and Latin words for ‘give’ and ‘gift’, plus the Celtic word for ‘dawn’, we might consider helping others get understanding too.
“That all may be one” – John 17:21
Acoustic: The Way I Am
Artist: Sonny Throckmorton, arr. by M. Haggard (1980)
*most names changed to preserve anonymity
*pl. of datum wr.as datums to avoid confusion