Sharpen Your Pencil

Photo Credit: W

“Let me sharpen my pencil and see if we can’t make that beam size work with the extra load the owner wants.” What does sharpening pencils have to do with designing beams? That’s simply an old expression in engineering regarding the need for greater accuracy in some particularly critical calculations. We tend to use a lot of approximations and rules of thumb that we know are not exact but will err on the side of caution. While a safe design is our duty to the public; a safe design produced in a timely manner makes for happy clients and keeps us in business. But sometimes, those typical procedures and quick approximations result in a design that doesn’t meet some project requirement. And while computers have replaced nomographs and graphical analysis methods – and the need to keep a sharp point on one’s pencil to get a more accurate result – we still use that expression to signify when the situation warrants a more detailed design. Back in the days of solving something by drawing similar triangles, the method – pencil and paper and straightedge – was often the limiting factor on our accuracy. Now, computerized methods allow us to be as accurate as we could ever need, so sharpening the pencil now is more about our assumptions. Did I assume a higher typical load than what is actually present on the current project? Did I use a simpler formula that doesn’t account for various load reductions or strength increases that actually could be applied to my current project? However, sometimes, in sharpening the pencil and wading into the details, we find that a particular situation isn’t quite as similar to past projects as we thought, and our assumptions we thought were conservative are actually overlooking critical factors. And that’s an issue I see outside of engineering as well.

One’s eternal fate is of critical importance. No one is promised their next breath, so where you’ll be a few minutes after your last breath, whenever it comes, is not something you want to miscalculate. What assumptions are you making that you need to revisit?

  • “The idea of God is outdated stone-age superstition and simply unnecessary now.”  Regardless of how old the idea of God is, that doesn’t make it unnecessary. We still need an explanation for the world around us, and scientific observation can only go so far. You can scientifically measure water boiling all day long and precisely explain how it’s boiling, and never explain why it’s boiling if you’re unwilling to admit that somebody put the kettle of water on the stove and turned it on.
  • “Science will answer everything someday.” The idea that science is the silver bullet to all our problems has a problem of its own: not all questions (and their answers) are scientific in nature. Metaphysical questions about the meaning of life and ethics are on the “ought” side of the ought-is dilemma, outside the scope of science, which can only observe what is, and not how it ought to be.
  • “Science has explained away God.” This idea that explaining the mechanics of our world does away with the need for God is a common assumption today, but this is akin to thinking one has explained the origin of a car by explaining how it works. The scientific method has allowed us to advance our knowledge of the mechanical workings of our world tremendously, but it is useless in a universe not governed by causality and logic. Our universe exhibits an organization that is best explained by a Master Designer. Indeed, modern science was based on the idea that the universe could be investigated and understood because God had created it in an orderly manner conducive to study.
  • “Religion just causes arguments and isn’t worth thinking about.” Maybe you’ve assumed that discussions about religion are just a waste of time and a needless source of feuding. But what’s the real problem there? Is it the subject matter, or the way we discuss it? Maybe civility and sound reasoning are the solution, and not indifference. Suppose you and I have gone for a flight in a mutual friend’s airplane. Beautiful, wide-open countryside passes below his Cessna 182 as we bask in the view. But then our friend passes out at the yoke. Now we are left with a very serious problem: what went up will eventually come down, one way or another. To make matters worse, we have very different ideas of how to fix the problem. But does our disagreement mean we should simply ignore the entire question of how to revive our pilot friend and/or land the plane? No! The problem remains even if we ignore it. In fact, it’s likely getting worse with each passing second. Likewise, the question of whether God exists, what we can know about Him, and what He may want of us are some of the biggest questions we can ask in life. No part of our lives are unaffected by the answers to this issue, and the urgency of finding the answer only grows the more we ignore it.

If any of those initial assumptions described your thoughts on the matter, I’d like to kindly suggest it’s time to sharpen your pencil and work through that problem again, my friend. But “time waits for no man”, and like the ground filling more and more of the Cessna’s windshield,  “the God question” can only be put off for so long before it’s too late.