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The poetry of physics

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Learn to love one Body. Love several bodies and then realize that the love for the body is less than the love for the soul. Love customs and tradition. Love knowledge for its own sake. Finally, experience beauty. According to George Dickie (“Aesthetics: An Introduction”), these were Plato’s suggested steps for coming to understand beauty and how to appreciate it.

This is Dickie’s take from Plato’s “Symposium,” which literally means “drinking party.” This tract consists of speeches from a cast of characters assembled by Plato, which includes Socrates who in his speech refers to Diotima of Manteniea as his informant. Diotima explains to Plato that beauty is the object of love. The primary text is, of course, long but it is the wonder of Dickie’s summation that it becomes more accessible, even interesting. All the more so for people who like art or actually make them. Dickie observes correctly that one of the problems of the current mind-set is that such concepts as beauty and aesthetics have somehow gotten lost in the wake of that dangerously vacuous modernist claim: “Anything goes.”

“Anything goes” might, of course, qualify as a personal philosophy for doing things. But how could one teach art especially to a young person with an inkling of artistic aspiration? Will the teacher simply say: “Just do whatever you please!” And when the time comes for the teacher to critique the student’s work, will the teacher simply say “It looks ugly to me” and then leave it at that, citing no authority other than personal bias or “experience” to back up the assessment? Since that sometimes is the practice in current art schools, it seems easy to understand then why the practice of art and literature has become somewhat stuck in a quagmire of ambiguity coming in various guises: realist, formalist, traditionalist, modernist, etc. Not to worry. Anything goes.

These are good days then to dwell on the core principles, especially of Plato, and remember how in his fantasy Diotima explains to Socrates the nature of love and why every lover of beauty is also a lover of the good, though the lover serves no god, and also a lover of thought; and in the end, therefore also a philosopher. Bad idea if you are hit with the same “theory phobia” that now afflicts many artists. Good idea if you are just reading this to while away this perfectly wonderful Sunday, at slow enjoyable speed.

And while here, the Maker may as well tell you about his love for physics. He took two years of engineering, which, of course, he did not finish. It was not for him a failure. He learned many things, one of which was a love for the machine. He might have been unmindful of the engineering “thingies” at first but in the run of time, he would come to see how important they were to his art, especially sculpture. An understanding of how gravity acts on a structure, center of gravity, vector forces, balance and stability is essential in the building of structures. They are the key to predicting stability and how much weight a structure might be able to carry.

In teaching his design students these things, the Maker remembers requiring them to build towers and bridges using raw pasta, toothpicks or bond paper rolled into tubes. Always the challenge was to build using the fewest sticks possible. And often his class would experiment with taking away all the sticks that were found to be unnecessary until the structure ends finally with just the right number of sticks, no sticks more or less than what is necessary. After every exercise, the Maker would always explain to his students this was exactly the same way stories, essays and poetry are “built.” No words more or less than what is necessary. The structure—be it a tower, a bridge or a chair—is also beautiful, even as it fulfills its functions, which just like poetry includes, to please and to inform. Structure is poetry.

Even so, there is one thing you cannot do with poetry. In his class, the Maker would with his students eventually begin loading the finished structures with little pebbles one at a time, eventually to determine how much weight each could carry before it collapsed. By this exercise, one might compute this weight against the weight of the structure itself, by so doing to define the structure to load ratio of the design. That mathematics is always good and enjoyable to note. But always it pales in comparison to actually watching the structure, which is also a structure of poetry, bear unbelievable load. Always, the event of collapse is accompanied by wonderment, much laughter and finally applause.

Some might argue that all these find no application in the design industry as it is currently practiced today where the volume of paint needed might actually be measured with a ruler placed beside the tin can. And perhaps that argument may be right. But it is not upon this paradigm of current factory practice that the Maker rests his case. He would rather cite the same arguments raised in ancient Greece at various “drinking sessions” or symposia: To understand beauty one must first learn to love knowledge for its own sake. At the end of it: Beauty.


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