Saturday, August 23, 2014

Mr. Fix-It: The Handyman’s Way of Living (and Dying) — Chapter 12

There was something else in that big black basement cabinet. Boxes of ceramic chips, in every size and shape, that my father brought home from work. It was like living in a money vault, except the coins were worthless. Still, I used to plunge my hands into the boxes and let the chips slip through my fingers, like a Midas reveling in his wealth. All the ceramic bits in a particular box looked exactly alike to me, but to my father each one was different. To be acceptable, the differences had to fall within certain exceedingly narrow tolerances. The tools of his trade were micrometers and calipers, lovely stainless-steel instruments that could measure things to a thousandth of an inch. He taught me how to use the vernier scale on his calipers—a way of reading those thousandths of an inch—and told me it was named for its inventor, a 17th-century French mathematician named Pierre Vernier. The simplicity of the invention, and its usefulness for exact measurement, impressed me as terribly clever.

As my father measured, he plotted. When I think of him, I think of graphs plotted in his neat hand on tissue-thin paper printed with a grid of faint green or orange lines. “Hand me a sheet of K&E,” he’d say, which stood for the manufacturer of the paper, Keuffel and Esser.

Keuffel & Esser made his slide rule, too. And maybe some of the other tools in his kit. His three-sided architect’s rule. His dividers and protractor. His triangles and French curves. His colored pencils, sharpened to a fine point. His gum eraser. With these instruments, he made his graphs. Ordinates and abscissas. Dependent and independent variables. He was a man in love with Cartesian coordinates. He told me the story of how the philosopher Rene Descartes was lying in bed watching a fly buzzing in a corner of the room. It occurred to Descartes that the position of the fly at any instant could be defined by three numbers, the perpendicular distances from the three walls. And so was born the coordinate graph. I have no idea if the story is true, but it struck me as marvelous at the time, as did all of my father’s stories. His graphs were marvelous, too. Lovely bell curves. Parabolas. Hyperbolas. Crisscrossing lines. He plotted everything. The data from his work, of course. But also stock market prices vs. sunspot numbers. Sales figures vs. inflation rates. Gross national products vs. geographic latitudes. Who knows what it all meant. Some of it may have been significant; some of it merely silly. His graphs were a way of teasing out hidden causal connections, if they existed, showing that the world was not the higgledy-piggledy it sometimes appeared to be. He was a great believer in causality. Nothing happened without a cause; the cause just might not be obvious. He had no taste for miracles.

If anything influenced me to study science, it was the cumulative effect of those hundreds of graphs my father was always plotting, each one a little work of art in his fine engineer’s hand. The thin colored lines on the green or orange-gridded paper were like circuit diagrams of the universe, a glimpse of the hidden webs of causality that make the whole thing work. He never knew much physics, but he had a physicist’s interest in the plumbing of reality. When I went off to study physics, I suppose I was looking for the plumbing, too. In my very first physics lab, we rolled a marble down an inclined plane and plotted distances vs. times. A parabola! A perfect mathematical parabola. Nature revealing her hidden plan. My lab reports were perhaps more notable for their neat, colorful graphs than for the quality of the physics. That was my father’s influence. And as he lay dying, he was still plotting, the many data of his illness, graph after graph, as if somehow the relationships would become clear and the independent variables could be properly adjusted to save him from what appeared to be an inevitable fate. There were no miracles, of course. Nor was his decline mere higgledy-piggledy. The graphs moved toward their foregone conclusion. It was cause and effect, all right. It was just a different effect than the one he’d hoped to find.

When I retired from teaching and cleaned out my office, I came upon a box of graph paper that I inherited from Dad. That wonderful tissue-thin, green and orange-printed Keuffel & Esser graph paper of various kinds. Linear. Semi-logarithmic. Log-log. One, two, three, four cycles. Polar. And suddenly I was back before the days of computers. Before the days of scientific calculators. Back to the time when a slide rule, a razor sharp pencil, and a sheet of the appropriate K&E paper was the way to analyze one’s data, discover patterns, find the law. As I thumbed through those pristine sheets of paper, I experienced a certain visual and tactile pleasure, but also a philosophical insight, something that consciously or unconsciously guided my father’s life and death. Without a mark on them, those tissuey pieces of paper with the meticulously ruled lines suggested the fabric of the universe itself, which appears to be mathematical in a way beyond our comprehension. Do we invent mathematics, or discover it in nature? We plot our data. We draw error bars on our data points. The world we experience is an approximation. An invention. Our invention is subject to ever-greater precision, an ever-closer approach to the real. The grid of that pristine K&E paper seems to me now like the armature upon which the world is hung.