Science Rules: Brad Efford on Bill Nye the Science Guy, Episode 14: "Structures"
The science guy is on a mission to prove the purposeful efficacy of everything on earth. When life seems empty or without meaning, the science guy wants to be your reminder that structures are miracles in their intention. That you are a miracle—your body, your being, structured with intention.
Whenever something is bent, one side is in tension and the other side is in compression, the science guy says, bending an aluminum rod to demonstrate. One side’s pulling while the other side’s pushing.
Tension and compression are what make structures work.
He stands beneath a highway on the outskirts of Seattle, the skyline brash and glittering behind him. The concrete pillars holding up the traffic need to be as thick as they are for the entire operation to work.
He stands outside an elephant paddock, one drinking water cluelessly behind him. Its legs need to be as thick as they are for the entire operation to work.
He pulleys an American flag up a flagpole. The rope doing the pulleying needs to be thinner than the pole for the entire operation to work.
A purpose, a design, for every structure. Form follows function, the science guy might say. In fact, does say. The meaning of life, he might as well be demonstrating.
The science guy is in the woods now. The bird calls and heavy sunlight of late summer in the Pacific Northwest. He could be in the Squak or Tiger Mountain forest. He could be in Marymoor Park, yards from a whiffle ball game, a picnic, a proposal. He could be anywhere, but the structure of his life dictates the likelihood of these woods, this specific lesson, happening within an arcing stone’s throw of the Emerald City. Like anyone, the science guy’s movements, actions, being are all guided by a deductive logic bound by structure.
This is what he’s here for. He is speaking about architecture, and he is speaking about nature, about the ways we’ve designed the former to emulate the latter. He says skyscrapers are kept flexible to allow for sway in strong winds, an idea ripped straight from tall trees. They sway above him now, almost imperceptibly, lightly enough you’d most likely not have noticed the movement at all had the science guy not directed your attention.
They’re built to be flexible is how the science guy describes it. You take solace in this, believe that maybe, for once, it could be true that we come bound by nature’s influence, resisting at every turn the state of mind with which we were born. What choice do we have? Only the choice to choose not to make one. To let go and bend. To sway in rough winds.
Its shape depends on what it does, and its strength depends on what it’s made of.
The science guy is standing on a man-sized model suspension bridge. He is explaining why structures are the way they are. Why anything is able to function at all. The bridge’s legs are concrete, tall and wide. Its cables are steel, thinner, with slack to allow for movement. Its deck is wide and sturdy, attached with even thinner cables. These look like they could snap too easily. The science guy assures us they are that way on purpose.
And you—what are you made of? What purpose do you hold—how have you formed to fit it? You aren’t sure, can’t say, on a good day might only venture a guess. At the end of the day, it’s the best any of us can do. Search and search and be OK with anything the search reveals. With nothing, if it doesn’t.
You have a tendency to want to want to be great at things. To try your hand at new skills, projects, curiosities. The way you quit, though, you’re amazed that anything sticks. Has stuck over time. Has made you into a semblance of any sort of functioning human. Yet the spirit of inquiry remains.
Sideways Stories from Wayside School. Louis Sachar. The collection of children’s stories was your favorite as an elementary schooler. You remember the story of Bebe Gunn, think of her often actually. She drew more than 350 pictures in an hour, worked tirelessly each day to break her personal record. She wanted to want to be a great artist, to prove her efficacy through sheer amount. When her teacher—Mrs. Jewls, the pre-Frizzle Frizzle—told her how much more important quality is, how little quantity matters in matters of subjective skill, Bebe Gunn broke down. Trudged home slowly in hopes of finishing drawing a cat’s whisker by morning.
And no one is the bad guy here. But you think of Bebe often. Have maybe never felt a closer connection to a fictional character. You understand in her, in yourself, the desire to create at all costs, to take full advantage of the possible structures life offers and ask, What about this one, and this one, and this one? You quit trumpet lessons, guitar lessons, French horn lessons, Taekwondo, two different punk rock bands, an interest in photography, in running, in blogging. You wasted a lot of your father’s money. You recognize the privilege of opportunity. That doesn’t make it any better.
The science guy says, Plants are natural structures. Says, Air and water pressure help the leaves hold their shape.
That sounds nice, you think. That sounds right. Pressure helps maintain design. The stronger the forces holding each other up, the stronger the structure. This year, you are getting married. This year, you begin not giving up.
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.