Come On Ye Childhood Heroes!

← February 24, 2008

I first wrote this piece for Robert Kanigel’s class 21W.774 Invention and Ingenuity, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

Imagine a world devoid of hate. No race to divide. No politics. Everybody and everything working together to form a better place. There’s no conflict. Everything just works out. Everything has its place. It’s not far off. It’s the world of Lego®.

LegosI understand that by not capitalizing and using the colloquial plural I am jeapordizing my chances of an awesome life as a Lego Certified Professional and am inherently choosing sides in a protracted battle over dialect and trademark. I’ve always said ‘Legos’. , the classic Danish building block of your childhood is a marvel of engineering. With only a few kinds of pieces you can build a car or a castle, a frigate or a fighter jet, a submarine or a spaceship. The Lego manAnd women! is truly a Jack-of-all-trades. He can do anything. He always fits in. Of course he does. He was designed that way.

But I don’t need to tell you this. Chances are, you know. Chances are, you can tell me the standard Lego colorsThe Classic 8 are red, yellow, blue, black, white, green, brown, and grey. . If you’re anything like me, your pieces were sorted by them (and then again by shape, of course). If you’re anything like me, those few colors were all you needed. Bricks and plates, doors and wheels, and the occasional windshield are all you needed. With these came endless diversion. And at the end you had a definite creation, a toy. The fun didn’t end with assemblyThe LEGO Group understands the importance of the subsequent storytelling that takes place after building is complete, and its ambitious licensing is one of its major stragic business advantages over Mega Bloks and other Lego-compatible competitors. . What you made became its own world. You had a day at the track, a protracted castle siege, or a voyage a-seaI have been told that “a-sea” is not a real word or phrase, but it is most definitely a common answer to the New York Times crossword puzzle. .

And as much as you would look at the picture on the box before opening up a new set, you couldn’t imagine that there was a combination of pieces that would turn out that fun.

Yet, without fail, you would put it together. And along the way, the set designers taught you new ways to put those familiar pieces together. They’d expose you to more interesting and clever constructs. Interesting ways to mount wheels. New ways to support roofs. Things that you never would have dreamed of. But it all fit together. And as you assembled more and experienced more you anticipated more. You could see how this combination strengthened the car’s chassis or how adding some extra pieces now would alleviate the lack of studs later, and it was extremely satisfying when the wordless directions bore out your predictions.

But those guys always had something up their sleeve. They knew exactly which piece would be absolutely perfect for that next step. What a fun job. When I was six or seven, after my garbage man stint (they get a cool truck) I imagined growing up and working at Lego, designing sets for people to build. I couldn’t imagine a better way to get paid.

But I grew up, and I moved on. I was no longer satisfied to make something that stood still. I wanted to build something that itself could do something. I wanted to engineer, though if you had asked me at the time, I wouldn’t have known it.

Luckily for my parents, those Danish wizards anticipated my maturity, and had just the remedy. Lego Technic. Sprockets and gears, racks and pinions. Motors. Motion. And the most amazing part? All of the big-boy pieces fit together with the pieces they would have otherwise antiquated. Surely this was no coincidence! The engineers at Lego certainly thought this through. Legos developed and whetted your palette, and Technic was the reward. Legos were the hook, Technic the twist, revitalizing your interest with new surprises and new questions.

How do you get the gear ratio in the drive train right? How do you build a worm gear housing? How can you transmit one motor’s power to both the helicopter’s rotor and its relatively distant stabilizing fan? When you were ready to set aside the bricks and plates, suddenly you got beams and axles and new dynamics. And then you have to ask, “How do you do it right?”

That was always a problem. If you were building something big, you either needed to draw plans (unlikely) or to have the engineering equivalent of Kasparov’s foresight. Otherwise what you just built now would, by the end, wind up in the way of that most crucial shaft or gear.

And in thinking everything through, and putting the small pieces into functional modules, and assembling the modules into a model, you were indoctrinated. The definition of effective propaganda is that it draws you in without you noticing.

That’s what they had done.

They got me.

And my parents had paid them to do it.

Mom and dad didn’t know then, but those were certainly the most expensive toys they ever bought. They came with four years at MIT.

By the time I got to high school, I knew I wanted to be an engineer. And when I finally could choose my courses, I loaded up with sciences, that being the closest thing to engineering available. And I didn’t just stick to pulleys and ramps and projectiles. I made it a point to take chemistry and computer science too. Who knew what subject would capture my attention?

I was lucky to wind up at a school with strong science, because after a few college-level science classes, I was converted. Studying those subjects you learn little pieces here and there, but what you come away with isn’t a set of single-purpose facts, it’s a full picture of how the world works and a broad understanding of how your facts fit together. It’s difficult to explain many phenomena with a single framework, because you never know what kinds of questions will arise. Yet someone, Boyle or Newton or Turing, found the right one. They had discovered the pieces, and people have added new pieces now and then. But the magic isn’t in the pieces provided.

A lot of learning science is learning new tricks. Having a million different ways to look at a problem, and to say “Oh, this kind of like that.” You arm yourself with little pieces here and there. But understanding science isn’t about the tricks. The magic is that once you understand, you can take the principles and solve your own problems. It’s freeform, a bunch of loose pieces in a crowded plastic tub.

← February 24, 2008

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