Sunday, March 1, 2015

Tales of perdition

Tumultuous times like these, both here in the country and in many other places in the world, prompt me to hark back to a cautionary essay I wrote in the early 2000s, “The Strength of Materials and the People’s Folly,” where I bewailed our tendency as a people “to consign ourselves to the patently inferior choices and deceivingly attractive but bad decisions that ultimately make life so miserable for many of us.” It’s an essay that I think is as relevant and as timely as ever, so I’m posting it in this week’s edition of the Forum. (March 1, 2015)

The Strength of Materials and the People’s Folly

In the engineering discipline there’s this thing they call the strength of materials, or the ability of substances to withstand stress and strain. The maximum stress a material can sustain and still be able to return to its original form is called the elastic limit, and engineers designing structures—bridges and buildings, for instance—savagely subject them to forces beyond their ultimate strengths. For safety’s sake, they have models of the structures “tested to destruction.”

The closest popular expression of this that I can think of is the English idiom about “the last straw that broke the camel’s back.” The allusion is, of course, not only to the danger of overloading beasts of burden but also to the perils of blind, unconditional trust in the capacity of things and people to perform beyond their natural, God-given limits. The folly of such behavior is captured chillingly in this haunting English lullaby:

Rock-a-bye baby on the treetop
When the wind blows the cradle will rock
When the bough breaks the cradle will fall
Down will come baby, cradle, and all. 

Lewis Carroll, that humorous English mathematical logician, also captured this logic of destruction in this rhyme about the fallen Humpty Dumpty’s fate in Alice in Wonderland:

All the King’s horses and all the King’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty together again.

Literature and history are, in fact, replete with accounts of tragedies resulting from a failure to recognize the limits to the strength of materials. In Thornton Wilder’s novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey, for instance, five apparently morally faultless people on a religious pilgrimage plunge to their death when a suspension bridge over a deep canyon snaps. Afterwards, a cleric investigates if there was anything bad or evil the victims had done in their lives for them to deserve such apparently senseless deaths.

Little attention was given to the state of the bridging materials and to their possible deterioration over time, nor to the possibility that the victims might have been, say, excessively overweight, that they may have clustered too close to one another at a weak spot, or that they might have gone into such religious frenzies—as in the Mardi Gras or our very own Ati-Atihan—for the bridge to snap in sympathetic vibration. Any of these circumstances might have been “the last straw that broke the camel’s back,” so to speak.

A parallel incident with similar religious overtones happened in Naga City in the Philippines way back in September of 1972. Right after a fluvial procession in honor of Our Lady of Pe├▒afrancia, the region’s religious patroness, had passed underneath an old wooden bridge over the Bicol River, the bridge collapsed. Several dozen devotees and onlookers, most of them boys and girls, were crushed to death or drowned. To my knowledge, no religious investigation was done to connect their tragic fate to possible moral or reprehensible misdeeds in life, as was done by the cleric in The Bridge of San Luis Rey, but just a few hours after the bridge collapsed, I went to the scene and this was what I saw: the wooden rafters and railings were severely rotted, split, or cracked after years of exposure to sun, wind, rain, and termites. To my mind, there was no way the badly decayed wood could have held the weight of those hundreds of people jostling one another in religious frenzy on the bridge or hanging from its rafters. The faith of the devotees was strong, but the materials of the bridge simply had become so weak for it.

In shipping as well, even the “battleship quality” steel of the ocean liner RMS Titanic fractured and broke when it struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic that fateful night on April 14, 1912, killing over 1,500 passengers aboard. The ship’s hull, although made of probably the best plain carbon ship-plate material available during the time, was damaged by the iceberg, and the rivet heads in the areas of contact simply popped off because of the tremendous forces created by the collision. This caused several seams in the hull to open up, flooding the ship’s watertight compartments. Because of their ductility, the rivets normally should have deformed first before failing, but according to some strength of materials analysts who examined materials from the wreckage many years later, they must have become extremely brittle in below-freezing water temperature. Their safety factor had been breached and they failed.

As in these tales of perdition, the danger to all of us is that we have been so mercilessly conditioned by popular culture, religion, and media to believe that everything is possible. We hardly put any safety factor in our personal, social, and political affairs. We thrive and even revel in blind faith and wishful thinking. We observe no minimum and maximum measures, no standards, no limits to anything—be it a dream, a plan, a product, a support system, a mode of conveyance, an advocacy, or a vote or aspiration to an elective post. In sum, we don’t think logically and rationally. We consign ourselves to the patently inferior choices and deceivingly attractive but bad decisions that ultimately make life so miserable for many of us.
From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in the The Manila Times. This essay subsequently appeared as Chapter 151 of the author’s book Give Your English the Winning Edge, © 2009 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

1 comment:

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