Writing, Wood, And Rocket Science

“You don’t seem like an engineer.”

That’s what people usually say a few moments after I tell them that I’m an engineer. Or a rocket scientist. Or whatever the conversation warranted. I guess they are thinking about the nerds they knew in college. But it is a true statement. I’m not much like an engineer. The primary reason for that is that I’m not an engineer. I’m a physicist. I just work as an engineer. As a rocket scientist to be exact.

For the same reason, many people are surprised to learn that I am a writer. They usually say, “Engineers can’t write.” And I say, “Exactly, because I’m not an engineer, I’m a physicist.” Then we have to go into that discussion: physicists figure things out because they are curious. Engineers figure out how to turn their discoveries into a death ray, or a nucleonic bomb, or a force field, and then sell it to the government for a bajillion dollars. Once a physicist always a physicist, but I really am not an engineer, I just played one for twenty years until I retired to pursue writing.

It took me a while to realize it, but writing a novel and engineering actually have some interesting overlaps. I didn’t discover this right away because I was so focused on the words. An engineer would say “x = x_0 + v+0 t + a t^2 / 2.” A writer would say, “Objects in free-fall travel in parabolas.” But once I got past that and began developing novels in a way that made sense, I quickly discovered that I had already been trained in the process.

Yes! It is a Matlab window.

Much of my engineering work involved writing computer code. If we needed a control system, I was the guy who would turn the control law into code so it could be burned onto a processor and then used on the missile. Computer code has tons of variables that hold data when it is being executed. To write the code the engineer/physicist/monkey must hold all the variables in his head, knowing what they are, what their expected values are, what their units are, where they are used, and how they change. The code below is some stuff I wrote to calculate the intersection of a cone with an oblate spheroid. Not as easy as it sounds. It was used in a program to draw what a satellite could ‘see’ if it was looking down on the Earth, so you’d get a nice outline of what is called the satellite’s footprint.

if (strcmp(method,’SPHERE’) || strcmp(method,’sphere’))
h = r_sinM – R_e;
%Account for large initial cone angles
if r_sinM > R_e
r_c = r_sinU*(R_e + r_sinM)/2;
%Move half way to surface
%Move above surface – only happens once
r_c = r_sinU*(2*R_e – r_sinM);
h = 1e6;
elseif (strcmp(method,’GEOID’) || strcmp(method,’geoid’))
[lat lon h] = ecef2lla(r_sin(1),r_sin(2),r_sin(3));
r_g = geoid_height(lat*180/pi,lon*180/pi);
%Account for large initial cone angles
if r_sinM > r_g
%Move half way to surface
r_c = r_sinU*(r_g + r_sinM)/2;
%Move above surface – only happens once
r_c = r_sinU*(2*r_g – r_sinM);
h = 1e6;

Some of the variables in this snippet are r_c, r_sinU, h, and R_e. I still remember what they mean and I’ve not looked at this code in about a year. There are also functions up there like strcmp() and ecef2lla() as well as keywords like if and elseif. Even the uninitiated can tell the code is highly structured. This is just a small piece of a much longer function with dozens of variables and functions, loops, counters, and decision making structures. In short, it is just like a novel.

Novels are full of characters. They do things. They have attributes. They go places. They interact and they change. You also have setting which determines what characters can do and where they can go, and plot that applies structure to the story. Character, setting, and plot must work together in a coherent way or the novel makes no sense. And just like in code, if an author makes a change, she must carry the ramifications of the change throughout the entire manuscript. To successfully develop and revise a novel the author must hold all of this in her head and see it all at once or the situation is hopeless. I’ve seen code like this. (I’m pretty sure Windows was developed that way.) We’ve all read books like this. One wonders how they get published!

Besides rocket science and writing novels I also work with wood. In fact, I run a small cabinet business. Kitchen cabinets, built in bookcases, vanities, islands. It’s work I enjoy. I’m using my hands,¬†it is artistic as much as it is functional, the projects have a definite beginning and ending – unlike government programs and some novels. I’m very proud of a job when I’ve completed it. But it should come as no surprise that I enjoy it because, once again, it is like hacking code or writing a novel!

In code you have logical structure. In a novel you have a plot. In a cabinet the structure is an actual structure. The characters are all the separate pieces and the setting is how they fit together. Small cabinets are easy. You can do them in your head. And estimating them is not too bad. Draw them out on the back of an envelop, work our your cuts and your lumber, and build. Sort of like a short story, or a Matlab function. A bigger job is like a larger piece of code, or a more complex novel. I’m doing a kitchen right now with six different assemblies that must all fit together when I’m done.

There are a lot of components that go into a cabinet. Plywood panels for the sides, back, and base. Hardwoods for the facing. Doors. Hinges. Drawers. Countertops. And you don’t want to waste a $50 sheet of plywood or a $40 piece of cherry. You have to lay out your pieces to get the minimal amount of waste. To be successful, the craftsman must hold all these pieces in his head, in the right orientation, of the proper size and material, and understand how they will fit together with either fasteners, glue, or both. Drawing it out helps, but without the grand scheme in your head the drawings become meaningless. Just like a novel. Just like computer code.

For whatever reason we like to put things in boxes. Engineering is a bunch of equations. Writing is all about putting words together. Wood working is cutting and joining wood. But when you get down to it, all of these characterizations are wrong. In fact, these pursuits have more in common than they have different because engineers, writers, and craftsmen all create things, and their minds go through a similar set of steps along the way. Sure, the tools are different. Engineers use equations, probes, and sensors. Writers use typewriters and word processors. And wood workers use hammers, saws, screwdrivers, and all sorts of fun power tools. But what they use to get the job done doesn’t define them, and it doesn’t define the final product either.

Whether it is an airplane, a computer program, a novel, or a set of cabinets, you can be sure that the people putting them together were thinking the same thoughts along the way. How does one piece relate to another? What do I have to do to get things to fit? If I make a change here, how does that affect everything else? Am I still following the plan? And perhaps most importantly: Is it going to work when I’m done? Whether you’re an engineer, a wordsmith, or a craftsmen, it’s about keeping track of things and making sure you are consistent. It is about creating something that is both functional and beautiful. And most of all, it is about meeting the requirements. Because if the thing you are building doesn’t meet the requirements, then why bother finishing it. Nobody would want an airplane that won’t fly. What use would a cabinet be if everything fell out on the floor? And would there be any point writing a book that didn’t make any sense?

Just like in a great novel, just like in an efficient machine, just like in a beautiful piece of furniture, it is all about connections. ¬†Understanding the connections well enough so that the artisan can conceal the practical in beauty. Because when you sit down in a great car you’re not thinking about the equations that describe the static forces in the tubular steel frame. When you walk into a gorgeous kitchen you don’t dwell on what kind of blade the maker used to rip the wood. And when you are captivated by a great novel you see nothing else. Function. Beauty. Design. Connections. Order is where you look for it. It is all around us.

About John

American, husband, father, writer, rocket scientist, soccer player, motorcycle rider, Christian, and proud of it.
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2 Responses to Writing, Wood, And Rocket Science

  1. It must be nice to be a plotter. I do really loosely plot my stories, stress loosely. It’s odd, because I’m extremely analytical about other things, just not the writing. Nice comparative thought!

    • John says:

      Handy for writing and construction but maddening for everything else. You can’t enjoy movies or books anymore because you can’t turn the plotting off! You’re either analyzing the plot of driving trucks through the holes. Actually, it is worse for the people around you because they have to listen to it!

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