This poem is about engineering, but so much more. it speaks to all of our projects that we aspire to.

After laying out how we can look up tables of the properties of materials, and design things to take the strength and properties into account, he points out a fundamental truth: People are not all the same, they are not fungible. And so – there is no possible table of what we can  do that says “insert four guys here to get the drawings done, ten there to install the girders.” There is no way to look up ahead of time the temperament and skills of a person, their personality, and how much stress they can take.

I believe it was Terry Pratchett, author of the Discworld fantasy novels, who observed that “Evil begins when you begin to treat people as things.” Things that you can order, sort, categorize, bin, dump as defective, and treat as interchangable cogs.

Political systems that have done that, that have treated people as interchangeable parts described by a label such as “labor”, theocratic or otherwise, have been responsible for deaths in job lots, by the literal tens of millions, in the last century.

Too wonder-stale to wonder
At each new miracle;
Till, in the mid-illusion
Of Godhead ‘neath our hand,
Falls multiple confusion
On all we did or planned-
The mighty works we planned.

 While he may have been speaking to the belief in a predictable universe in his time, I think this also speaks to us as well. We’ve gone to the moon. Now what? We carry around supercomputers in our pockets (by 1990’s standards), and the Star Trek communicator and tricorder? Been there, done that.

We’ve become so used to our miracles that we forget all the things we can’t control or predict. Combine that with the closing of the first verse – if we begin to treat people problems as thing problems, fixable by universal tables, we get results even worse than those we get from predictable materials and an unpredictable universe.

Yet, we are offered hope. Despite being broken and unpredictable, despite having failure thrust upon us by an uncaring universe, have the chance to rise up, and build anew.

It’s our choice.

Hymn of Breaking Strain

by Rudyard Kipling

THE careful text-books measure
(Let all who build beware!)
The load, the shock, the pressure
Material can bear.
So, when the buckled girder
Lets down the grinding span,
‘The blame of loss, or murder,
Is laid upon the man.
Not on the Stuff – the Man!
But in our daily dealing
With stone and steel, we find
The Gods have no such feeling
Of justice toward mankind.
To no set gauge they make us-
For no laid course prepare-
And presently o’ertake us
With loads we cannot bear:
Too merciless to bear.

The prudent text-books give it
In tables at the end
‘The stress that shears a rivet
Or makes a tie-bar bend-
‘What traffic wrecks macadam-
What concrete should endure-
but we, poor Sons of Adam
Have no such literature,
To warn us or make sure!

We hold all Earth to plunder –
All Time and Space as well-
Too wonder-stale to wonder
At each new miracle;
Till, in the mid-illusion
Of Godhead ‘neath our hand,
Falls multiple confusion
On all we did or planned-
The mighty works we planned.

We only of Creation
(Oh, luckier bridge and rail)
Abide the twin damnation-
To fail and know we fail.
Yet we – by which sole token
We know we once were Gods-
Take shame in being broken
However great the odds-
The burden of the Odds.

Oh, veiled and secret Power
Whose paths we seek in vain,
Be with us in our hour
Of overthrow and pain;
That we – by which sure token
We know Thy ways are true –
In spite of being broken,
Because of being broken
May rise and build anew
Stand up and build anew.