Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Case for Liberal Arts Majors in the Space Business

"NASA hires engineers, they don't hire writers."
--K. E. Leahy (a.k.a. Mom)

"I've got plenty of engineers. What I need is somebody who can write."
--Col. Robert M. Weimer, U.S. Army (Ret.)

I have one of the more unique jobs at NASA, in that my job is to write conference papers, outreach materials, presentations, and speeches for the Ares Projects. Some of my non-techie friends are baffled about this: "How do you write about all that stuff if you don't know rocket science?" On the one hand, they're right, and I spend at least one editing cycle having a subject matter expert going over my stuff to make sure it's not technically wrong. However, it's also to my advantage not to be completely fluent in "Engineerish," "Scientistese," or even "Governmentese." Why? Because my audience is not other engineers. I operate in that broad, hazy territory between rocket geek and normal person.

I actually wanted to be a science fiction writer when I graduated with a B. A. in English lit. That didn't quite work out because I didn't know enough about science or engineering to make that stuff plausible, nor did I understand people well enough to write about them effectively. Good thing I didn't quit my day job.

But English majors still have their place in the universe--yes, even in the uber-techie world of NASA's Constellation Program--and there are even ways to apply the English lit-crit skills that we learn instead of math or chemistry. For example, a general education in linguistics, semantics, and other courses that focus on the structure of language can enable the writer to "understand" engineering without doing the math. What follows will probably horrify my engineering customers, but they cannot argue much about it, because I get more and more right all the time.

Let's say you've got some hypothetical hieroglyphics in front of you, like this:

"It has been determined that the potential for degradation of pofcore performance is increased by drendelation of starboard riffleclamps under increased thermal environments."

Now some of these words are made up (and if they are real, my apologies--they're there to make a point, not describe a rocket). But a wise enough reader can extract a few things from this sentence:

  • You can see that some sort of performance is degraded by drendelation. You don't know what drendelation is right now, but that's not important. You need to deconstruct the sentence some more to get the whole picture.
  • "Increased thermal environments" is a lofty, engineerish way of saying something has been heated up. You know: sort of like "In today's contemporary society vis a vis..." is English Professorish for "Today."
  • The long string of prepositions actually provides a trail of breadcrumbs that leads you back to the actual meaning. It's not just "drendelation" that is reducing X performance, but drendelation of the starboard riffleclamps. And that drendelation is caused by increasing heat.
  • "It has been determined" is just more passive voice. Depending on the audience, the subject, and the purpose of your document, you can provide an actor for who is doing the determining. For example: We determined, The Ares Projects determined, or NASA determined.
  • So now we can more or less determine what the primary subject, verb, and object of this sentence are:
    Subject: the starboard riffleclamps
    Verb: degrade
    Object: performance
    The rest of the words can be moved around to suit the editor's preferred word order, like so:

    "The engineering team determined that the starboard riffleclamps could degrade pofcore performance because they become drendeled (or experience drendeling) when they are heated."

    And imagine that: the sentence even flows better. Who'd have guessed?

Now again, I know nothing about engineering. And obviously I know jack about riffleclamps or any other imaginary technology. Engineers DO write in English, though it is the job of the discerning technical writer to sort out what that English is doing, and how all the parts fit together. This is literally how I "taught" myself engineering, first in the defense business and then later in the space business. Mind you, I knew bits and pieces from reading this or that bit of Clarke or Heinlein, but a lot of my rocketry education came from puzzling out what subjects did what things to what objects until the engineering terms came more naturally. Once I could piece together the words and what widgets did what things, the rest was wordsmithing, and I know that stuff.

The point is, technical writing can be done by non-engineers, and done with great facility. And when it comes to learning the hard stuff, there are definitely more direct and logical ways to go about it than the one I just outlined (though sometimes textbooks don't cover the items I'm asked to write about or edit). However, aside from making the engineerish clearer to a non-technical audience, where I believe liberal-arts majors make their best contributions is in tailoring their content for particular audiences. That requires a bit of imagination and "character research," as you have to a) find out who your audience is for a particular application, and then b) imagine what might motivate your particular reader/listener to care about the subject enough to read further.

And I would have to say that the stereotype of the engineer as having no sense of poetry or "mission" in their work is just that. I'm surrounded daily by people who translate the poetry of mathematics or physical shapes into actual hardware that sends people into space. There are days I wish like heck I could do that. Many of them can even verbally rattle off some very profound answers about why they got into the space business or what the space program means to them. They just don't like to write. To which I say, "Great! More job security for me."

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