Farmer as Creative


It’s easy to think that science and engineering are devoid of an appreciation for aesthetics. We seem overly focused on results, with little interest in the human dimension of our creations. Indeed, that’s the stereotype; but like all stereotypes, it has very little basis in reality. People in technical fields are still people, and they can still appreciate beauty. Often, however, that beauty is found in different places, such as: in effective, efficient design; in elegant, simple solutions; and in clever and innovative responses (the sort that make you go “oh, that’s neat!”). In science and engineering, beauty is found in function first, then in form. It’s no use having something pretty if it doesn’t accomplish the goal…

This philosophy applies to farming, too. Having a pretty tool that doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do isn’t much help. Joe Trumpey explored this idea, in an exhibition titled “Farmer as Creative,” which opened on October 21, hosted at the Work Gallery in Ann Arbor. He explored the many ways farmers design new tools and processes to accomplish tasks and achieve their broader goals, combining function and ethics to improve soil health or water quality, or breed sounder livestock lines.


Accompanied by live music and delicious food, visitors wandered through the exhibit, exploring the many innovative ways farmers apply creativity to their craft. Dried plants and articles about farmers and their tools decorated the walls, and several tools had been set up for people to try. Tillers International, a nonprofit organization based in Scotts, MI, had a manual hay baler with plenty of hay (clever, farming out work to volunteers!). There was a rope making machine made from a hay rake and water pump parts, and people were encouraged to make their own jump ropes. Friends of mine have made rope by hand before and can attest just how frustrating and mind-numbing it is – this looked like a much easier method. There was also a corn sheller, which was very popular: there was plenty of dried corn to test it on, and the machine stripped the kernels off within seconds.


Local fermented foods company The Brinery (“Stimulate Your Inner Economy!”) had a fermentation petting zoo, allowing people to see, touch, and smell their products at various stages. With food available in packages at the grocery store, it’s easy to forget where it comes from – and to miss out on fun new foods like sauerkraut and kimchi! There was a new design for a beehive, next to a traditional terracotta beehive. One display involved Native American farm implements, showing that this is a process that has gone on since farming itself was first invented.

The attendees were a diverse bunch: college students, farmers, wandering Ann Arbor residents drawn in by the music, and families with children. The tool demonstrations were a big hit with kids, who were more than happy to lend a hand on the enormous piles of corn and hay. Several farmers were on hand to talk about what they do and to explain the exhibits, and there were way more possibilities for exhibits than there was room available in the building. Articles on the walls described old tools being repurposed (an old plow being used as a berry planter), a portable “sugar shack” for making maple syrup, a calf being fitted with artificial legs, and farmers using oxen to plow fields.


Farmers’ creativity spans more than new tools: it also includes development of new processes. From preservation methods like canning and fermentation, to a u-pick garden that prices vegetables by the peck, to community gardens sprouting up across the country, farmers are finding new business models and ways to reach their customers.


There were many more innovative ideas than could be covered in this exhibit. Websites like Farm Show magazine and (an open source community for resilient agriculture) collect new tools and processes so others can see and use them too. The displays of creativity shown here were truly impressive – definitely enough to make this engineer go “oh, that’s neat!” repeatedly! It’s easy to think that farming just involves putting seeds in the ground, watering occasionally, and then harvesting, but obviously it’s much more complicated than that. As Trumpey explains, “farmers are a tool savvy, process oriented, iteration aware, focused group of problem solvers.” Seeing this exhibit proved once again that efficient, effective design has its own beauty, and that you don’t have to be an artist to appreciate art in its myriad forms.





Engineering topics: Position, Velocity, Acceleration

I got my bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering, and graduated in 2011. Since then, I haven’t had the chance to do much actual engineering (an odd side effect of having “engineering” positions is that they don’t involve using any of the technical knowledge I gained in school!), but I still enjoy learning and talking about the topic. One of my favorite classes in engineering was phyics – specifically, calculus-based physics of mechanics and motion. It always made a lot of sense to me, intuitively, and I had fun tutoring my classmates in these topics as well. I rather miss the teaching part of being in school, actually: I found it helped me learn the subjects a lot more thoroughly as well.

One of the first concepts we learn about in physics is the idea of position, velocity, and acceleration. Here are the basics:


Position – where an object is with respect to time: x(t). “t” is time, “x” is position. When using this notation, you need to set a point in space as position “0”, your start point. It doesn’t actually matter where you set this point, as long as you stay consistent throughout the calculation. For example, here’s a graph of the position of an object thrown straight up in the air. It goes up, achieves a maximum height, then falls back down. In this case it’s only traveling vertically, so we can use one graph for position since its horizontal position doesn’t change.


Velocity – not quite an object’s speed! Speed and velocity are two different terms, scientifically speaking. Speed denotes how quickly an object’s position is changing with respect to time, while velocity denotes both the object’s speed and its direction. So, velocity can be negative. As with position, denoting velocity as v(t) requires you to set one direction as positive and the other direction as negative. We’re assuming the object is traveling in one dimension here – in this case, the object is going either straight up or straight down. So, we can set “up” as positive velocity, and “down” as negative velocity. Here’s the graph of the thrown object’s velocity as it is thrown. Notice that while the graph of position formed a curved line heading up and down, this graph forms two straight lines.


This is because velocity is the derivative, or slope, of position. Looking at the graph of position, one can see that the slope of the curve starts out high, then decreases to zero as the object hits its maximum height, then starts increasing again as the object falls, but now it’s a negative number. It’s a straight line from a positive number to the equivalent negative number. Velocity can be found directly from position.

Acceleration – how quickly an object’s velocity is changing over time: a(t). It’s the force that pushes you back in your seat in a fast car: the faster a car accelerates, the more quickly its speed can go from 0 to 60 mph. Positive acceleration means an object’s velocity is increasing, while negative acceleration means its velocity is decreasing. Notice that velocity can decrease and go negative! In the case of the object thrown straight up, this means the object is heading downward and speeding up. Here’s the graph of the object’s acceleration with respect to time:


Here’s something interesting. Again, acceleration is found as the slope of velocity. Since the graph of velocity was a straight line, its slope is actually constant: -9.8 m/s², the acceleration due to gravity. When the object is thrown, gravity is the only force acting on it, constantly pulling it back to earth. So as it travels upward, it slows down, stops briefly at the top of its arc, and then speeds up as it heads back down again.


These are the basics of motion in physics. The topic can be made more complicated: continuing to take the slope of acceleration can give a term known as jerk, which is how quickly acceleration is changing. In the case of the thrown object, acceleration isn’t changing, so jerk would be 0. The term can be used in other situations, such as when measuring discomfort to passengers in a vehicle. High jerk causes discomfort, so this measurement can be tracked and limited.

After that it gets a bit weird. Proposed measurements for measuring subsequent slopes have been called snap (rate of change of jerk), crackle (rate of change of snap), and pop (rate of change of crackle)! These aren’t widely accepted measurements, however, and examples like this show that every once in a while scientists do actually exhibit a sense of humor…

So, am I alone in having a favorite physics topic? Feel free to send suggestions on what to talk about!


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