How Did They Do That?

Being a STEM can literally suck the fun out of a great activity. Take a recent Christmas light show that ties the bright blinking lights to music piped in through a special FM radio frequency. This show is huge. Cars park in a field in front of a large house flanked by two seventy-foot tall ‘trees’ and surrounded by smaller trees and geometric shapes that gives the appearance of these inanimate objects leaping and dancing to the various carols.

Most people would marvel at the show, entertained by the music and the coordinated light display. STEMs? We wonder, “How did they do that?” Painstakingly trying to figure out how many separate light strings one structure contained. The tall trees have one hundred ninety two strands each. And then we imagine the computers behind the scenes and the logic that goes into the performance to each song in the repertoire.

I recall the days when I could go to a movie and be entertained. Yes, things were different when I was in eighth grade. That was the school year my aptitude test first showed my STEM leanings. Yes, I was embarrassed at the thought. The other girls tested to more traditional careers. Not me.  After that awakening, I found myself constantly wondering and questioning the technical aspects of a lot of things.

I recall watching the movie, “Jaws”, and figured out long before the climactic end that the only way they were going to get rid of the shark was to blow up the fire extinguisher, a compressed gas, while wedged in the shark’s mouth. It was too predictable for me.

I learned Hollywood wasn’t so concerned about technical accuracy as they were about entertainment value. There were other movies that had effects that just weren’t going to happen that way in real life. I think a little respect for the laws of physics, as a starter wouldn’t be too much to ask.

A trip to the Hoover Dam was mostly disappointing for me. In the post-9/11 world, what I would consider the really good part of the dam was closed to the public. Far under the earth, the workings of the dam, the gigantic pumps, were hidden from view. The consolation prize? Looking at the tops of the turbines while they spun; not even half way down into the cavern under the dam. Whoopee.  My cousin who accompanied me on the trip couldn’t understand my frustration. She thoroughly enjoyed the visit. She’s not a STEM.

Back in Las Vegas, we took in one of the Cirque du Soleil productions. Boring, with a capital “B”. Except this show had the most marvelous stage: it tilted ninety degrees into the air, it twisted, it turned. The actors had to stay on their toes on this stage. I was intrigued. How did this thing really work? I found myself wanting to see behind the stage. The show we had paid a lot of money for just wasn’t worth it. Now, throw in a backstage tour after the performance and you are talking a priceless evening.

Maybe one day I will fall back and just enjoy the various options for entertainment, but right now, the curiosity just gets this one every time. Perhaps that is why romantic comedies are my favorite movie. Rarely technical, mostly fluff, funny, ahh, I’m relaxing already.


About stemzandroses

I'm an engineer and writer with a built-in need to share my nearly 40 years of experience working in a male-dominated field with the rest of the world.
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7 Responses to How Did They Do That?

  1. CE Jones says:

    Great Article. Along with your curiosity is your talent to create a story.

  2. At this, I find myself wondering what you might have thought of “Junkyard Wars” (“Scrapheap Challenge” in the UK), and, prior to the recent mishap at the Alameda County bomb range, “MythBusters”. Those programs tried to at once entertain and show ALMOST enough madcap engineering to warrant the “E/I” mark.

  3. Joan Johnson says:

    I wish you’d been with Connor and me at the Christmas lights display. Because he asked all the questions and I didn’t have any of the answers. Maybe I’ve got a little budding engineer on my hands. After a few songs, he finally threw his hands up in the air and said “Okay – they get an A!”

  4. Katherine says:

    My eldest son and I both are NDT inspectors. We stood, with the rest of the family in the lobby of a theater waiting to see Les Miserables and entertained ourselves by critiquing the welding on a piece of sculpture–using all the technical terms, of course! Then the middle child pointed out that the sculpture was made of PVC and we had been bringing the accumulated weight of our training to an analysis of caulk….we’re still blushing.

  5. JL says:

    Ah, there’s great truth in your words Connie. Isn’t it funny how we STEMs feel the urge to analyze everything even when we’re not trying to? Around campus, I’ve laughed at the design of simple loading carts. “Ha! I know why that broke. I can’t believe someone would put so little support there.” Even in the dorm hall restrooms, I have this odd habit of doing mental FEA– as I pull the paper towels from the dispenser. Seeing specifically what force will make it tear correctly the first time. ..well I suppose it’s better if I stop there. Hey and..keep it up.

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