May 23, 2014 by T. Gregory Argall
I like knowing things.
If there’s something I’m not sure about, I’ll research it. I’ll dig through books and the internet until I have a confident understanding of the topic at hand.
Some things, however, you just sort of intuitively know how they work, machines that when first introduced were such phenomenal breakthroughs in engineering and science but now have been around for so long that we just know how they work.
The steam engine, for example. I’ve never actively researched how a steam engine works because, hey, it’s a steam engine. How complicated could it be? And I’ve never had to actually build one myself so I didn’t need to know every detail and nuance of the steam engine process. I had a basic understanding of the internal workings, a rudimentary awareness of the required components, and a very general acknowledgement of the steps involved in turning boiling water into power.
That was enough for my needs.
The other night I was flipping channels because, holy crap, Sunday evening network television is abysmal and way up in the higher numbers I found a documentary series about British inventors. (Technically, I suppose it was just about inventors in general, but it was a British TV series, so they had their own understandable focus.) Among other things, this particular episode talked about James Watt and his steam engine design, breaking down the process and showing how it works.
And that’s when I discovered that I was wrong.
In my brief and admittedly dismissive understanding of steam engines, I had omitted a fairly obvious step in the whole process, the step involving cold water condensation creating a vacuum. Now it all seems so obvious but I had previously been content in my blissful ignorance, believing that I had knowledge when, in fact, I did not.
I’ve been married nearly twenty-five years. I’m well acquainted with being wrong. I’m wrong on a regular basis and I just take it in stride.
But this was different.
This was a fundamental restructuring of my understanding of simple things.
My day had gone from being the sort of day when you could truly believe that Joni Mitchell had written “This Flight Tonight” for Nazareth to being the kind of day where I question everything I thought I knew. Was I missing important aspects in my knowledge of any other simple, not-too-complicated, obvious things? Was I suddenly the local representative and South Park’s Underpants Gnomes, wielding a brilliant plan with an ethereal, unknown, yet crucial step in the middle?
And so, without any real need or even inclination to build a steam engine, I researched how to build a steam engine, what was required, how they worked and, most important, the different kinds of steam engines.
Turns out that the steam engine I thought was a steam engine is, in fact, a steam engine. It’s just a different kind than the one James Watt designed. So, while I was wrong, I was also right.
So, I’ve got that going for me.
Whether you’re wrong or right or both, try to be nice to each other.