‘How Things Work’

“When I was a young boy, a wise old man told me there were two ways to answer a serious question.

You can give a first-order answer…which is what most people do…
Or, you can decide to do the work, and find a second-order answer.”

What is the difference?

I asked, and he answered by pointing to a radio sitting on the desk beside him, one of those older types with a cover, a dial, and a few rotating buttons.

If I asked you how this radio works,”
he said,
you could give what most people would say is a perfectly good and perfectly true answer by showing how to turn it on — like this”.

“He reached for the first dial and turned it on. Then, he twiddled another dial and found a pleasant music station. Smiling, he said, 

You see? That’s how the radio works. On-off, volume control, station-finder, and so on. Most people who see me do this will never ask how a radio works again, and will never want to know anything more about it. My answer is good and true but for the really curious person, is not very satisfying. It tells how the radio operates, but does not say how it really works.”

“At this point, he lifted the cover off the radio and showed me something I had never seen before: a little jungle of glowing vacuum tubes and a tangle of coloured wires and all sorts of other gizmos soldered together, that had always been hidden from view just because I had never bothered to take a radio apart myself.

“Then, he gave me what he called a ‘second-order’ answer to the question. I must admit, I was enthralled, because what he told me seemed like magic. He explained about radio waves, and how they were invented, and when, and by whom, and how they travel through the air at various frequencies and even pass through our bodies, and how they hit the radio antenna — “Here it is, right here”, he showed me — and how this and that tube (which had to be a vacuum, I can’t remember why) would convert the radio wave into the sounds of the beautiful music I was hearing at that very moment.

“I remember asking him, 

But HOW, but how really?

“And I knew at that very moment that he had hooked me.

“I have never thought about a radio — or much else — in quite the same way since…”

–from the ‘Preface’ to “Oh, Oh, Canada!”, William D. Gairdner, (BPS Books Toronto), 2008

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