Think With Your Hands

 

  OK, the other day I was near a bookstore in its final death throes, having been killed by the internet, Amazon, et al.  Sign said “80% off” so I decided to go in and see if there was anything interesting left.  There was!  Edward Tufte’s Visual Explanations – Images and Quantities, Evidence, and Narrative. 

  The Boston Globe calls the book “A Visual Strunk and White”.  The New York Times calls Tufte: “The Leonardo of Data”.  No understatements.  With wit, verve, and beauty the author convincingly shows how good design matters.

  One of many cases in point.  We learn that it was poor design that allowed the Space Shuttle Challenger to explode, and I’m not referring to the engineering of the Shuttle or its launch vehicle themselves, but rather that of charts engineers used the day before the launch in an unsuccessful attempt to convince NASA that an explosion was likely.

  The physical problem was that the cold temperatures predicted for launch date would attenuate the resilience of critical rubber o-rings allowing propellant to escape and conflagrate.  The chart below is but one of several holding data describing the danger.  Of their many faults Tufte cites inadvertent visual dissembling: “Chartjunk”. In contrast “Good design brings absolute attention to data”.

  Then he recounts the famous experiment undertaken by the Nobel Prizewinning Physicist Richard Feynman in front of the commission investigating the accident.  Using a small c-clamp he’d brought with him, he squeezed an o-ring and put it in a glass of ice water for a few moments.

  As he removed and released the bit of rubber, it became immediately apparent that the cold kept it from springing back.  “I believe that has some significance for our problem”.  The utter clarity of his presentation and his deadpan understatement blew the minds of the masses who saw it on TV or read about it in the printed press.

  “Never have so many viewed a single physics experiment.  As Freeman Dyson rhapsodized:  “The public saw with their own eyes how science is done, how a great scientist thinks with his hands, how nature gives a clear answer when a scientist asks her a clear question.”

  So, now, my questions are first: Without shelves loaded with books in a store through which to meander, how will one be able to occasion such moments of serendipitous edification?  Seriously.  And more important (again) what will the internet do to the potential for the development of great minds that “think with their hands”? 

  Here’s a response to question #2.  Reformed nerd Nick Carr has written a Pulitzer nominated book, The Shallows, What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains and penned an article for The Atlantic titled “Is Google Making us Stupid?”  Slate called his work “Silent Spring for the literary mind”.        

  Carr believes that “…there’s legitimate reason to be fearful.  I’m just suggesting that data technology is becoming so dominant that we’re losing the opportunity and the encouragement to engage in what I think is the highest form of thought.”*

  I’m gonna get some sort of grip exerciser. 

*”The Reluctant Luddite.  Nicholas Carr is a Net user of the first order, but he believes his brain is paying for it.”  Article by Dirk Olin in the Sept/Oct ’11 Dartmouth Alumni Review.

   

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