Sunday, June 15, 2008

My Father has Delightful Quirks

Also; I love it when science beats common sense over the head.

At the moment I’m spending some time with my parents, visiting them over much of the summer. Spending time with my father reminds me of one of his most endearing characteristics; he has this charming way of flat out denying that he ever makes any mistakes. It’s always so sweet to see him with the unexpected outcome of something, acting like he knew all along what would happen. One of my favorite examples of this is from when I was in high school.

My father had an old pickup truck that he needed to do some work on, and wanted a convenient way to lift it with his forklift truck. He came to me one day and showed me some sketches he had made for a simple solution.

He had a couple of steel I-beams that he was going to weld together at the right distance from each other, so that he could drive the truck up on them, and lift the whole thing. He wanted me to calculate if the rig would hold the weight of the truck.

Of course, my dad is a classically schooled engineer; he could do that himself. But the task involved a lot of boring fact-finding; things like the distance between the forks of the forklift, the distance between the wheels of the truck, weights of different components, and so on, so I guess that he was just a bit too lazy to do it himself.

Either way, it was no big problem. I had learned how to calculate things like that in school, and it seemed like a simple enough problem. I got the necessary data; I sat down and did the math, and found the answer confusing. I went to my dad and said “Well, according to my calculations it isn’t going to hold.”

He looked at me with surprise. “Of course it is!” he said. “Look at these girders; they’re really thick and sturdy. The truck isn’t that heavy; of course they’ll hold.”

I showed him my notebook and showed how my calculations said that the girders will bend significantly, giving a 20 cm deflection at the ends. He briefly looked over my calculations, couldn’t find any fault in them, but concluded that I must be wrong anyway. After all, the girders looked so sturdy; of course they would hold the weight! He had a great air of “I don’t care what the math says; common sense tells me that this is going to work.”

So, the next day when I was coming home from school, I noticed a couple of bent steel girders sticking out of his scrap metal dumpster at the back of his workshop. I saw a golden opportunity to gloat a bit. I went in to him and was about to innocently ask him about his truck lifting-experiments, when he beat me to it.

He looked up at me from his desk and said, with a totally straight face, “Oh, I tried making that lift. The girders bent to hell, just like we said they would. But you know, I thought, what the hell, might as well try, right? It could have worked anyway, but they bent so much that the truck rolled off.”

So, he managed to make it sound like he was never of a different opinion. It’s really quite sweet; he is so good at not acknowledging at all that he made a mistake, even when it was just the day before.