Ode to general knowledge

I’ve stated before that I don’t believe that college is for everyone. For example, college is not for Stacy Perk, who just wants to write for Glamour magazine, but her dumbass school is making her learn stuff, and she doesn’t care enough about stuff to actually go to class and do her homework and shit, so her GPA is suffering and so she might get kicked out of j-school, OH THE INJUSTICE OF IT ALL. (Where did I find this again?)

There’s cheap dig about Glamour magazine (Americans spell ‘glamour’ with a U? Who knew?) just asking to be made, but I can’t be bothered to make it. As for the rest of the piece – it’s been a long day, and fisking is a delicate art as it is, and fisking something that so spectacularly transcends parody? Forget it.

So I’m going to talk about how a broad and general technical background has served me in the place where I most flagrantly avail myself of the right hemisphere of my brain: the pottery studio.

For instance, I minored in physics for a spell – more than long enough that I can answer the question that every beginner potter asks: “why is everything I make turning into a bowl?” That’s Newton’s first law in action: if you pull the clay directly upward, it’ll bowl out, because as soon as you lose contact with your form, you’re releasing the centripetal force that keeps your clay close to the centre of the wheel. Compensate by pushing inward, toward the centre of the wheel, if you want to throw forms that don’t widen at the top.

…A solid background in elementary geometry was enough to enable to me to help a fellow potter who was throwing a drum. On top of the thrown drum body she planned to stretch a circle of drum skin, which she’d tie on by looping a string through “twelve or fourteen” holes spaced equally on the perimeter.

Twelve, I explained, would be better than fourteen, and we could space them equally using nothing but pencil and a straightedge. And I understood the reflection properties of conics deeply enough to explain why it was suggested that drum bodies be paraboloids.

…My studies of chemistry ended when I graduated high school – something that I didn’t start regretting until I started working regularly with clay. But I stuck around long enough to learn the difference between temperature and quantity of heat – a difference that is paramount to everyone who works with kilns.

Potters talk about firing at various cones rather than at various temperatures – whether your kiln temperature rises at 50 degrees per hour or 150 degrees per hour makes a huge difference in how your glazes will come out. I stuck around long enough to understand that the evaporation of the water molecules in wet clay – which happens when clay is left in the air to dry – is a physical change, whereas the driving off chemically bonded water from clay molecules – which happens in the bisque firing – is a chemical change.

This distinction explains why clay will disintigrate if you dip it in glaze – a suspension of insoluble particles in water – before it’s been fired, but not after; it also explains why unfired clay can be recycled, but bisqueware can’t. I don’t know enough chemistry, however, to make glaze-mixing anything other than random, which is why I’m positively salivating over this book.

(I do know enough to remember that copper turns green when it’s been exposed to oxygen – witness the roofs of our Parliament buildings, among countless others – which is why I’m not surprised that copper oxide in glazes only gives brilliant reds in reduction firings, such as raku, in which the interior of the kiln is starved of oxygen.)

…And damned if I have the physics/kinesiology background to explain this one adequately, but every time I teach a beginners’ workshop, I recall a certain experiment that I found in one of the children’s science magazines I used to read when I was a kid. Try this one at home: have a partner – preferably a strong one – extend his or her arms, with elbows locked, and fists pressed together as tightly as possible.

You won’t have much trouble knocking your partner’s fists apart, regardless of how strong they are or how weak you are. Now have your partner try this again, but with his or her elbows bent and fists pressed together close to the body. That’s a much more stable position, and it’s how I motivate the throwing posture: you use your entire upper body – not just your hands – when you’re on the wheel.

You tuck your elbows into your hips, you bring your chair right up to the wheel, and you lean downward into the clay; otherwise you’re no match for it when you try to centre it. Take it from a certain beginner I taught once: he was six inches taller and nearly a hundred pounds heavier than me; he had biceps the size of my thighs; and when he sat back at the wheel with arms extended, he was no match for a 500g lump of clay.

That’s how my “useless general knowledge” has come up in the pottery studio alone. I owe a huge debt not only to the artists, but to the mathematicians and scientists who have laid the groundwork for my craft. I suppose I don’t really need to know why I need to lean inward why I throw; why I can’t seem to control a pound of clay unless I tuck my elbows into my hips; why we can’t get bright red glazes with our electric kilns…but my time in the studio is richer because I do.

Similarly, Ms. Perk technically doesn’t need to know damn near anything outside how to write a sentence if she wants to write. But she sure won’t have enough perspective to write anything worth reading. Not even in Glamour magazine.

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