Saturday, June 11, 2011

Physics lesson

It seems that whenever I visit my good friend and colleague Pete in upstate New York, we run into some situation that involves a lesson in physics. A few years ago, it was "How do we get an 8 ton dump truck out of the hole it created when it fell through the barn floor loaded with four tons of wood?" Not wanting to spend the $1200 to hire a crane to haul it out in 20 minutes, we decided to use our knowledge of physics to get it out ourselves. It took more than 12 hours, but eventually we accomplished it through a series of built ramps and strategically placed floor jacks. And it only cost one case of beer. The spectacle also drew a small crowd of curious onlookers and many helpful friends, who added their suggestions. It was not only a great feeling of accomplishment when it was pulled from its abyss, but a lot more fun--and surely more stupid--than simply paying someone else to do it.

This time, the lesson involved us again as unsuspecting participants of a dilemma. The "contributor" to the real-life physics problem was a 15 year old Amish boy who worked at his parents' saw mill. As one familiar with the very conservative Amish in eastern Iowa, I was surprised to find a family who did not shun gasoline-powered machinery. The boys, dressed in the traditional straw hats and suspendered long pants, were busy sawing trees into planks with a power buzz saw, while the girls--dressed in bonnets and long dresses--cut the lawn with a large mower.

Pete picked out a hefty bundle of wood trimmings, and the helpful boy picked it up with a front loader and drove it to the waiting trailer. Pete commented, "That front loader looks a little small to be handling this." As the machine slowly approached the trailer, Pete's words proved to be prophetic: As the load was lifted and extended, and the loader started toward the trailer, we realized that we needed to get clear of the area, and quickly backed away. The load came crashing down onto the trailer, sped up by the loader's momentum and shifted center of gravity, smashing one trailer fender and pinning the front loader in a precarious position.

Now what?

Fortunately, no one was hurt (the young man was wearing a seat belt). So began or problem-solving: we needed to get the front loader out and onto four wheels without damaging it or endangering anyone. It took a few minutes of pondering with the entire family who had of course come over to analyze the situation, and then with the assistance of a younger brother and another piece of equipment, the front loader was safely lowered and the fork released from under the ton of wood. I suspect that the young man learned some important physics principles, and did it without memorizing any formulas. Not a practical way to learn physics in a school setting, though.

Monday, June 6, 2011

It's Fundamental

The more I think about going back to America, the more I dread the in-your-face religious fundamentalists that ambush the unwary at every turn. It is what I like least about my native land, and one of the reasons I so enjoy living in a country where they are rare. The most offensive in the U.S. are the politicians who feel it is their duty to legislate religious values, in effect ignoring the Constitution. I'm not sure why they insist on peppering me with unsolicited metaphysical lessons, but it reminds me very much of living--as I did for two years--in a Middle Eastern country. There is not a lot of difference: fundamentalism is fundamentalism, only the symbols one displays differ. At least the U.S. does not have a state religion. Not yet anyway.

I have never met or seen a Buddhist fanatic. Devout, yes, but never preachy or with an air of superiority fundamentalists wear when believing they have somehow been chosen by a supreme being over others by virtue of their spouting scripture to the unsuspecting and keeping track of Sunday church attendance. The irony of the gentle nature of Buddhists, who have no weekly holy day (one visits the temple on auspicious Buddhist anniversaries, otherwise they make visits when they feel like it), is that there is no belief in a supreme being. I guess more correctly, Buddhists choose whatever god or gods or spirits they wish to add to their practice, such as Hindu deities or the spirits manifested in luck or fate. Many non-Buddhists assume that Buddha is a god, but as I pointed out to a fundamentalist friend who refused to take a photo of a Buddha statue ("a false god" he called it), Buddha was a teacher, and reminded followers of that. He insisted that they question his words, and to not worship him. Admittedly, many have not taken that teaching to heart. Yet, the result is a very non-judgmental religious practice. Not once in my six years here have I ever been preached to by a Buddhist. Freely given history and explanations, yes, but only if asked.

I do not begrudge anyone their beliefs, but I am offended by what I know is the coming rudeness of the American fundamentalist interruption of my life. I can smile and nod, which seem to pacify them, as they assume I agree with their memorized rhetoric. However, I can't ignore a challenge, and if pressed, will engage them in debate. If it is one thing that fundamentalists can't stand it is the combination of reason and science, neither of which is familiar to them.