By Callie Oettinger | Published: January 17, 2014
“To an engineer, fan belts exist between the crankshaft and the water pump. To a physicist, fan belts exist, briefly, in the intervals between stars.”
That’s beautiful, I thought, after reading the quote above. But . . . What’s it really mean?
This quote appears at the end of the following story, in the acknowledgements section of George Dyson’s book Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe:
In 1956, at the age of three, I was walking home with my father, physicist Freeman Dyson, from his office at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, when I found a broken fan belt lying in the road. I asked my father what it was. “It’s a piece of the sun,” he replied.
My father was a field theorist, and protégé of Hans Bethe, former wartime leader of the Theoretical Division at Los Alamos, who, when accepting his Nobel Prize for discovering the carbon cycle that fuels the stars, explained that “stars have a life cycle much like animals. They get born, they grow, they go through a definite internal development, and finally they die, to give back the material of which they are made so that new stars may live.” To an engineer, fan belts exist between the crankshaft and the water pump. To a physicist, fan belts exist, briefly, in the intervals between stars.
The sun is the star upon which so much of this world relies, which explains why Dyson’s father called the fan belt “a piece of the sun.” The fan belt exists between the life of —and arguably because of— the sun.
What Bethe also explained in his speech is that,
“The ejected material probably contains the heavy elements which have been formed in the interior of the massive star. Thus heavy elements get into the interstellar gas, and can then be collected again by newly forming stars. It is believed that this is the way how stars get their heavy elements. This means that most of the stars we see, including our sun, are at least second generation stars, which have collected the debris of earlier stars which have suffered a supernova explosion.”
Why am I sharing this on a site that most-often discusses publishing, doing the work, being creative?
Jon Udell’s article “Names That Mean Things, Names That Do Things,” pointed me toward Dyson’s book, but his article 3D Printing Isn’t the Digital Literacy that Libraries Need to Teach was the one that spun me into researching Bethe’s work, as well as the work of William A. Fowler, and how the core materials of stars are gathered by new stars.
What does 3D printing and digital literacy have to do with the creation of stars?
One has the potential to feed the other.
Take the concept of a star and break it down to an individual level. You’re a star. The core of what you create in your lifetime has the potential to help other stars form.
I spend much of my time researching, brainstorming and/or implementing the creation, conservation and sharing of stories and other forms of information (a.k.a. the “heavy elements” or “materials), which are, or have been, at the core of so many individual stars.
What scares me is that much of the material from older stars has been boxed and stored in a relative’s attic, warehoused and forgotten (or in a long que awaiting digitization) in a library’s warehouse, or is disintegrating in full view, with little action to preserve it.
“At a gathering of makers and hackers last year I sat in a session on the future of libraries. The entire discussion revolved around 3D printers and maker spaces. I asked about other creative literacies: media, webmaking, curation, research. Nobody was interested. It was all about 3D printing.”
Udell goes on to discuss the maker movement and 3D printers and his conclusion that they are “being marketed with great success.”
We are starting to realize that you can’t build a house, or heat it, or feed the family that lives in it, by manipulating bits. You need to lay hands on atoms. As we re-engage with the physical world we will help heal our economies and our cultures. That’s all good. But it’s not the first thing that comes to mind when libraries seek to transform themselves from centers of consumption into centers of production.
Libraries really are about bits. They are uniquely positioned to adopt and promote digital literacies. Why don’t they? Those literacies aren’t yet being marketed as effectively as 3D printing. We who care need to figure out how to fix that.
My conclusion on why there’s a push for 3D printers instead of curation/preservation by libraries?
Money and manpower.
Invest in a 3D printer and you’re likely to get people in the library making/using it. Spend the same money on curation/preservation and you’ll cover not even a dime in the dollar of materials that previous stars have created.
“When people say everything’s online, they’re woefully uninformed,” said Jerry Dupont, of the Law Library Microform Consortium, as quoted in the well-titled ABA Journal article “Fading Past: Are Digitization and Budget Cuts Compromising History?”
Why should you care?
So much of what is created today is inspired by materials created by yesterday’s stars.
So much of the problems we face have solutions in past experiences.
So much of where we’d like to go, has been traveled by those in the past.
While making and creating and doing is important, the second and third steps of sharing and preserving are equally important.
Like Udell, I’d like to see a solution and am muddling through my own ideas/solutions.
If you’ve ever incorporated—or have been inspired by (or learned from)—past stars, how would you keep their core materials available for the future? What would be of greatest importance to you?
One last thought from a completely different source:
When interviewed by Jimmy Fallon this past week, Bruce Springsteen said (check out the 2:40 mark):
“It’s not the time in your life, it’s the life in your time.”
There have been some big stars with one-hit lives and small stars packed to the gills with life.
Preserving their materials isn’t just a good thing to do — it has the potential to help grow stars for the future.
One thing you can do? Support the libraries and encourage digital literacy. I know they don’t buy as many books as authors and publishers would always like, but they do have the potential to provide those authors and those publishers the resources, inspiration and stars for the future.