All the World's a Classroom
Giza. Chichen Itza. Magelang. Three locations where ancient structures stand for thousands of years. The pyramids of Giza have existed for over 4000 years, built out of quarried stones, stacked and shaped into place. El Castillo, the largest pyramid in the Chichen Itza complex in the Yucatan state of Mexico, is made out of rocks forming a 4-sided structure with stairs on each side. There are sculptures of serpents on the sides of the stairs on the northern side. Candi Borobudur, or the Borobudur Temple, in Magelang, Central Java, Indonesia, is an impressive structure of stone carvings of Buddha facing all corners of the earth. The walls are relief panels with carvings that narrate Buddhist cosmology as well as daily living in 9th century Javanese society.
Each of these structures reflects the worldviews of the civilizations that created them. Both their function and aesthetics are filled with meaning, and somehow this deep meaning is communicated to anyone visiting its perimeters. When you come close to these structures, they generate a reaction in the soul.
In Structures: Or Why Things Don’t Fall Down, reportedly one of the influential books that Elon Musk read when he first thought about building SpaceX, structural engineer J. E. Gordon reflects on structures and aesthetics in his first chapter:
“…although most artefacts are not primarily concerned with making an emotional or aesthetic effect, it is highly important to realize that there can be no such thing as an emotionally neutral statement. This is true whether the medium be speech or writing or painting or technological design. Whether we mean it or not, every single thing we design and make will have some kind of subjective impact, for good or bad, over and above its overtly rational purpose.”
Gordon contrasts the artefacts of the eighteenth century, which “seem to many of us to be at least pleasing and sometimes incomparably beautiful,” to the works of modern man—modern is a relative term–which is not so much filled with “active ugliness” as the “prevalence of the dull and the commonplace.”
“…man does not live by safety and efficiency alone, and we have to face the fact that, visually, the world is becoming an increasingly depressing place… Far too seldom is the heart rejoiced or does one feel any better or happier for looking at the works of modern man.”
On why these ancient structures last, I am toying with conjectures here. I’d defer to the civil engineers and architects to supply the scientific explanation.
Pyramids and temples were built by their creators to last. Whether it was a tribute to kings, ancestors, or gods, these structures reflected their beliefs about life and the afterlife. This to them was a perpetual reality that would never change. Why would it, if this was how the world worked? The bodies of past Pharaohs were not placed there temporarily, nor Buddhas arbitrarily placed in random directions. They were designed with intention of permanence.
If these structures were meant to last, they needed to be built in a certain way, much like the difference in attitude and approach when I know I’m making something for temporary use or for ever. Intent drives content, which in turn informs method.
The pyramid-like shape of these 3 structures to me seems very stable, although I would here open myself to counter examples that show other equally stable shapes. Admittedly, these 3 examples are simply based on my personal exposures, a lecture I heard recently on Egyptology, my recent visit to Chichen Itza, and my visit and pride in a notable accomplishment of my home country’s past civilizations.
Gordon also writes that pre-metallic structures of the past probably ‘force’ their engineers to think deeply about loads and stresses on the materials at their disposal:
“To make structures without the benefit of metals requires an instinct for the distribution and direction of stresses which is by no means always possessed by modern engineers; for the use of metals, which are so conveniently tough and uniform, has taken some of the intuition and also some of the thinking out of engineering.”
Certainly there were numerous ancient structures that didn’t last, whether to due structural or environmental causes. Earthquakes, floods, and everything that could happen over the span of 4000 years might destroy even the most superior knowledge of stress distribution on solids. This, though, only makes our respect and admiration grow for the few structures that have survived history and the “primitive technologies” that created them.
Of Matter and Structure
There is also, however, something to be said about the materials used in these trans-millennial structures. They were made out of stones, probably because stones were the most readily available materials with load-bearing strength before the discovery, manipulation, and production of metals. Is it also possible that this choice material contributes to their survival?
Since metallic structures are relatively younger, it is quite unfair to compare stony and metallic structures on equal grounds. We don’t know (or, rather, I don’t know) whether metals will outlast stones, as in, if two pyramids were built, one with stone and one with metals in the same location, which one would last longer? We only have one version of history, so all we can do is credit the ancient glories to the stone structures.
As building materials, stones have notable advantages. They are by nature durable, fireproof, and nonreactive. They are not the easiest to work with due to their weight and non-uniformity, and they don’t provide good insulation (not good for places with extremely hot or cold weather). But their resistance to fire and moisture is a clear strength, unlike wood that is in fact fuel for fire and prone to decay, or metals that bend and melt due to heat. Stones will not rust, since the molecules are mostly oxidized and thus will not react with air or water. Further, it can be restored. Many of the ancient stone structures were once lost and re-discovered after many years of abandonment. But careful restoration could bring their old glories back, provided that enterprising people didn’t chip them away, and moss could be removed from stones. Compare this with common houses in North America, which, HGTV tells me, can undergo so much decay and destruction from being abandoned for a few years.
The Character of Stones
In the Biblical account, there is a section that flies over human history by giving each era a certain character through material symbols. In the book of Daniel chapter 2, the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar had a dream which he forgot, and decreed his counselors to reproduce the dream and interpretation. Failure to do so would result in death. Daniel, a Hebrew prophet in the king’s court prayed to God and was granted the vision and its explanation.
The vision was of a statue with a head of gold, breast and arms of silver, belly of brass, legs of iron, and feet of iron and clay. Each section symbolized a kingdom, gold for Babylon, silver for Media and Persia, bronze for Greece, iron for Rome, and iron and clay for divided Rome.
At the end of the vision was a part that was a bit strange and discontinuous. A stone “cut out without hands” appeared, stroke the feet of the statue, and crumbled the whole structure down. This stone represented the kingdom of God, hence the discontinuity from the materials in the statue–metals refined by human civilizations–was fitting here.
Yet the choice of a stone to represent the kingdom of God was rather anticlimactic, wouldn’t you say? I would probably choose something majestic, like a big giant diamond to crush the entire human civilization. A plain old stone is neither flashy nor valuable.
Interestingly, however, the commentary continues to highlight that this last kingdom’s distinct characteristic was that it would last forever. Daniel 2:44 says, “And in the days of these kings shall the God of heaven set up a kingdom, which shall never be destroyed: and the kingdom shall not be left to other people, but it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand for ever.” The other kingdoms pass away, but this one stays.
Perhaps there is something here, given what we know about the material characteristics of rocks and stones. In other places, Biblical references to rocks mean stability, strength and assurance (e.g., building on the rock, rock of salvation, etc). God Himself is referred to as the Rock of Israel.
It is not uncommon for the Bible to illustrate the kingdom of God with unusual symbols; a seed, leaven, a net cast into the sea, and numerous other unexpected metaphors. They are often humble, simple, and commonplace. Yet each time, they reveal a secret strength that is not always intuitive to human thinking, like the seed that grows into a tree, where birds can lodge in its branches. The baffling-ness calls its audience to think of reality as God sees it, that not everything is valued according to the marketplace and human commerce.
In the choice of a stone in Daniel 2, its durability, strength, and stability certainly reflects a characteristic of God’s kingdom. That sameness yesterday, today, and tomorrow is a key aspect of the Biblical God. I don’t know whether the author of the hymn “Rock of Ages” was thinking along this line, but that phrase is awfully and appropriately fitting.
Photo credit: Johnny Loi Photography
The riveting true story of the women who launched America into space.
In the 1940s and 50s, when the newly minted Jet Propulsion Laboratory needed quick-thinking mathematicians to calculate velocities and plot trajectories, they didn’t turn to male graduates. Rather, they recruited an elite group of young women who, with only pencil, paper, and mathematical prowess, transformed rocket design, helped bring about the first American satellites, and made the exploration of the solar system possible.
For the first time, Rise of the Rocket Girls tells the stories of these women–known as “human computers”–who broke the boundaries of both gender and science. Based on extensive research and interviews with all the living members of the team, Rise of the Rocket Girls offers a unique perspective on the role of women in science: both where we’ve been, and the far reaches of space to which we’re heading.
Back in January, I shared my goal to read differently this year, which is to read for understanding and wisdom, and not pursue a statistical target. It is now the end of the first quarter (!), so I thought I’d share updates on how my reading habits change because of this goal.
In short, reading slowly has been more transformative than I thought it would. These are the 5 shifts I’ve noticed in my routines this year.
Scribbling in books
As my reading decelerates, I produce more notes on the margins and in my notebook. I have more conversations with the authors, asking questions and analyzing their arguments, essentially taking this advice to heart:
Reading a book should be a conversation between you and the author. Presumably he knows more about the subject than you do; if not, you probably should not be bothering with his book. But understanding is a two-way operation; the learner has to question himself and question the teacher. He even has to be willing to argue with the teacher, once he understands what the teacher is saying. Marking a book is literally an expression of your differences or your agreements with the author. It is the highest respect you can pay him. -Mortimer Adler
I love the organic experience of writing down thoughts with pen and paper, which naturally pulls me towards paper books rather than their digital counterparts. Considering how costly this can be, I’ve started buying used books, though admittedly, I’m conflicted when there are already highlights and notes in them. It feels like the book isn’t completely mine. In any case, these marginal notes render the books very personal to me since they now contain the author’s and my thoughts combined, and I would be hard-pressed to let them go.
Writing more in general
As thoughts are left to simmer and sink in my mind longer, I find myself producing more materials to write as well. If you’ve been following this blog, it would be quite evident to you how certain books inspire my writing (see below). I find this incredibly satisfying: the authors’ thoughts mingling with my own and bearing fruits tinged with my individuality. This is the creative process, in essence.
The process of building mental models from reading also leads to the writing of series of interconnected articles, since some thoughts are too wide in scope to cram into one article. I’m looking forward to growing this skill further.
Taking notes while listening to audiobooks
Since I want to absorb as much as I can from the books I consume, it becomes impossible for me to listen to audiobooks casually. I have to really engage my mind and take notes during the narration to feel like I don’t miss anything. This is partly because I’m not an audio learner, so this is not the ideal format for me at this point. I’m going to keep experimenting, though, and see what works.
Once I finish a book, it now stays on my desk for a few weeks to counteract the out-of-sight-out-of-mind experience I tend to fall into. It’s nice to be reminded of the book’s key ideas just by glancing at it. But also, I skim my hand-written notes again and re-read sections that I’ve marked. This proves really helpful in deepening the book’s impress on my mind, something akin to a sedimentation process. I feel like I grasp it better on the second or third walk-through. The book also remains on my desk if there’s an essay cooking in my buzzing head, since some thoughts require a long conception time before they can be verbalized coherently.
Synthesizing multiple sources
I’m practicing the art of synthesizing knowledge in a more intentional way this year, growing, cataloging, and organizing my growing mental library. Some of you know and have subscribed to the newsletter I started in January where I share articles, books, podcasts, videos, etc., that inspire me (sign up here if you’d like to get these in your inbox). It’s an evolving project, but I’d like to curate things more thematically going forward, creating narratives out of various materials based on their key ideas.
It turns out, this reading orientation hasn’t slowed my speed too much. Surprising, but I’m going to continue to not focus on the numbers. One thing I still need to develop, though, is a system to collect quotes and notes from different books and various media. How do you integrate different sources of information and your personal notes in one location? If you have suggestions, please let me know!
That’s all for the updates. If you’re interested, I keep an up-to-date reading list on my Goodreads profile. Just for kicks, below are the connections between the notable books I’ve read in 2016 and the articles you see in this blog (click on the + signs to expand).