Science Rules: Brad Efford on Bill Nye the Science Guy, Episode 10: "Simple Machines
There is a video on the internet—and there are many more just like it—of a trebuchet launching a car, a piano, and a plastic barrel full of explosives. It’s been titled “The Trebuchet Launching a Car, Piano, and Incendiary Drum” (perhaps only because plastic barrel doesn’t have the same ring to it). The video is a little exciting and terrifically silly. A crowd of bystanders bystand behind a gigantic simple machine not too unlike a catapult. A car is attached to the machine, then flung through the asphalt English sky to its final resting/crashing place. The response from the crowd may not be silence, but the wind and distance at the very least makes it seem so. There is something desperately stupid in their reverence. A piano is then flung, followed by the exploding plastic barrel. After the latter majestically bursts mid-air, you can hear distant car alarms going off, a poor though appropriate approximation of a cheering crowd.
Anyone who bothers to ask why is missing the point. The human race learned science, mastered its basic concepts enough to manipulate them, and ever since has been able to do essentially whatever the hell it wants with the information. It wants to see big things soar through the sky. It wants to see them come crashing down. It wants spectacle and bombast. It wants to see itself rewarded and reflected: a machine simple enough to make life worth it, big enough to play god.
The science guy glides down into his lab on a fire pole.
Using the fire pole is a fast and fun way to get down here, he says. But using it to get back up….well, that’s another story. He grips the pole and shimmies a short length upward, struggling like a dog in a ball pit, making little progress. He gives it up before too long, point taken.
After years of a contentious marriage that nonetheless gave her three good-looking children, Kourtney Kardashian is letting Scott go. Her husband. Unreliable bottle service of a man. Drunk or drugged or gone too often. She’s had it. It’s rough and unfair and disheartening. Kourtney starts the bandage-ripping process of letting go, taking her kids on vacation with her sisters, hitting the gym on the reg, scheduling nude photo shoots, getting her glam back and with it, gradually, her confidence. It’s a Kourt the others haven’t seen in a long time, and they couldn’t be more thrilled. Kim points out how much she’s glowing, how toned and tan and happy she looks. Khloe keeps Scott at bay, reminds him of his choices—the hard-partying, the disappearing, the erratic stabs at fatherhood. Kylie says, Kourtney’s my favorite sister right now.
And it’s massive and nothing at once. The Kardashians deal with the change the same way they have before and will forever: with positive confrontation, then support, and finally love. Whatever the fulcrum of the problem, the family will pivot appropriately, swing up, swing down, provide as comfortable a rhythm as possible and ride the issue out, head-on.
Another example: Kim asks Kylie to walk in Kanye’s second Yeezy fashion show in New York, but almost immediately is worried about chatter she hears re: Kylie’s work ethic, attitude, habits, etc. Rather than rescind her offer or bark orders or threaten, Kim takes her littlest sister out to lunch. While they eat, she gives career advice that all comes back to the same salient point: you have not just the right, but the responsibility to maintain control over your public image. And it’s an image that starts right here—no, has already begun. Be powerful, be professional, make connections, and think of the future you want. It’s in your hands. Kylie understands what her big sister is getting at. She rocks the shit out of the Yeezy show, no diva play, no entourage backstage.
Positive confrontation. Support. Love. Treating others with the respect you know they deserve. Giving them your time. Climbing back up the fire pole even though it’s ten times more challenging than coming down. Understanding family as the simplest machine, as wheel and wedge and pulley all at once.
Ramona Okumura makes prostheses. She is showing a group of children how arms operate, demonstrating how the claw hand opens and closes using the same mechanics as the brakes on a bicycle. She straps an arm onto one of the kids to demonstrate—he balls his hand into a fist to play amputee and tucks the fist into the end where the hand should be and where now an operable claw finds home instead. When he shrugs his shoulders this way or that, the claw slowly snaps at the world in response.
Ramona brings out a full-arm prosthesis, a leg-and-hip prosthesis, a foot-with-ankle, says, It’s sort of like taking the applications of engineering and helping someone to get better.
Simple machines make our life a little easier, the science guy says from his seat in the first car of an active roller coaster. And, of course, a lot more fun. He whips around turns and the coaster riders behind him scream, hold on to the safety bar, laugh and laugh and laugh.
The science guy has a point. (The science guy always has a point.) Life could be that simple, that fun. It’s been twenty years and Ramona Okumura still works with prostheses in Seattle, taking time to teach kids—older now, but kids—at the University of Washington. She is in love with the simplest aspects of making life simpler, more fun. Helping those who need it to see the worth in living, in adapting, in flinging large objects for absolutely no reason. In letting go and watching shit soar. In soaring.
Brad Efford is the founding editor of The RS 500, a project pairing each of Rolling Stone‘s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time with an original piece of writing. His writing can be found in Puerto del Sol, Pank, Hobart, and elsewhere. He teaches English and history in Austin, TX.