December 18, 2011

Quanta on my mind

AS I'VE MENTIONED before, I was reading Steinbeck the other day. Or trying to read Steinbeck. It's not always easy, especially when he says: "We doubt very much if there are any truly 'closed systems'."

He was talking about the workings of what he called a primitive principle known as the universality of quanta.

Well, it might be primitive to him, but it's way above my fire-make place, as they say in Afrikaans.

Nevertheless it reminded me of a remark I overheard at a dockside once long ago. A yacht had just arrived in port after taking a long, bad beating in a storm at sea. She was a beautiful wooden cruising sloop, 37 feet long, with the long graceful ends and short waterline of the CCA era. She was, in fact, Francis S. Kinney's lovely Pipe Dream design made famous in Skene's Elements of Yacht Design.

Her skipper, Dave Alexander, had just stepped ashore to make fast her mooring lines. He looked bleary-eyed and exhausted after days and nights without adequate sleep. A friend walked along the dock, greeted him, took a quick look at the battered boat and said: "Wow, how many systems are still working?"

Until that moment I had never imagined a sailboat as having "systems." But I gave it some thought and concluded tentatively that the man was right. There was a steering system, a communications system, a cooking system, an anchoring system, two separate systems for propulsion (sail and power), a system for pumping bilgewater, a system for removing human waste, and so on.

You could, of course, break some of these systems down into smaller components. For instance, the steering system on this boat consisted of a tiller and a rudder. The rudder, in turn, consisted of a stock and a blade. The blade, in its turn, was probably made up of separate pieces of wood to form its whole.

Nevertheless, as far as I could see now that I'd figured it out, none of these systems impinged on any other. In my estimation, each was a closed system. I mean, if the rudder failed, you'd still be able to anchor. If the mast fell down, you'd still be able to motor. If you ran out of beer you'd still be able to radio a Mayday.

Yet Steinbeck indicates that all these systems affect each other. He maintains they are separated from each other by only the smallest steps — steps that they can take in their stride.

He is certainly right when he says that such systems are not entirely "closed," because that would mean they could exist and do their work without outside help or interference. But I still don't accept that a broken toilet affects the steering system, or a fault with the VHF affects the cooking system. So I really don't understand what he's getting at.

I could be misinformed, of course. Perhaps in my youthful ignorance I wrongly regarded the whole boat as one unified system to move people from one place to another by sea. Or, even more simply, as a unified system to bring joy and pleasure to those who love yachts.

For all I know, a sailboat might well be a universalitied quantum, as Steinbeck insists. Or maybe — just maybe — Steinbeck might be wrong and I might be right. (And pigs, the universal units of the breakfast system, might fly.)

Today's Thought
In utter loneliness a writer tries to explain the inexplicable.
— John Steinbeck

"Why are you crying, my love?"
"Oh John, I cooked you a lovely supper and the dog ate it."
"Jeez, don't sweat it, darling. Tomorrow I'll buy you another dog."

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)


Adam said...

A broken toilet can impinge on the steering system if the helmsman really has to go. Don't ask how I know this.

Generally though, I'd have to agree: a boat's various systems are effectively isolated. I think this is for two reasons:

1) For the most part, each system produces outputs that are not the inputs of any other system.

2) When the output of one system is the input to another, usually the effects of the first system are overwhelmed by the natural inputs to the second system. For example, it's okay to use the head and the watermaker in the same ocean.

Matt Marsh said...

Interesting thoughts, John, as always...

I'm not sure if it's true that systems really are isolated on modern boats. On the best cruising designs, yes they are, but there are so many modern boats where everything ties to a single, highly complex point of failure- the electrical bus.

On such a boat, it's quite conceivable that when the electric-flush toilet clogs up, one of its electric pumps might cause a fault that leads to interference in the wiring harness near the electric compass for the electric autopilot...

They say complex systems give you "modern conveniences". I think there are many cases where complex systems only shift the distribution of labour, rather than reducing it: instead of working things by hand when underway, you're fixing things by hand when in port.

EP said...

We tend to think of systems as things outside us, but man is a part of each system.

No idea if that is what Steinbeck meant.