Are we sacrificing creativity for content?

I decided to become an engineer, before even knowing what “engineering” was, because of a comment my 4th grade art teacher made regarding an art project. I’m pretty sure she meant it as a complement.

The concept of “<insert form of creative expression here> is <insert sensory-related word here> math” is nothing new. From the mathematics of music, to the use of perspective in visual art, there is no escaping the mathematical nature of the universe. All art, no matter the medium, can be thought of as offering a different view of our underlying reality. A different way of looking at the equations, a way at looking at math without even realizing it’s math.

Then why in the engineering curriculum is the emphasis all on the math? Sure, it’s important. Knowing the math can mean the difference between a bridge that collapses1 and one that is a functional art exhibit. Or the difference between a Mars Climate Orbiter that doesn’t orbit and a Mars rover that far exceeds its planned longevity. But it’s still just one view.

If you have ever tried applying the same layering techniques using water colors that are commonly done with oil paints, or tried to write a formal cover letter in iambic tetrameter, you have first hand experience that the choice of the medium has a large impact on the styles and expressive techniques available to the artist. Likewise, the choice of programming language has a similar affect on the capabilities and limitations of the programmer.

see the code

And on the flip side, anyone who can write a formal cover letter, or who is intrigued by writing one in iambic tetrameter, should learn a programming language or two. It’s yet another form of artistic expression, one that can transform the metamedia of the computer into a rich, expressive statement, or produce an epic failure of both form and function.


1 Though there is a beauty to the mathematics of this particular failure.

A Comment on “A comment on commenting”

In his post A comment on commenting, leon.pham commented on the annoyance of remembering different commenting syntax in different langauges. It’s true, it is a lot to keep track of. Luckily, if you use a good text editor, such as emacs or vim you can offload the task of remembering what syntax to use to the editor itself. For instance emacs has two commands to aid in creating comments: one to block off a highlighted region in comments, and another to add an end of line comment. Once you learn the command for each (adding an end-of-line comment defaults to M-; in emacs, (where M is the “meta” key, or “Alt” on most keyboars) but of course you could map it to anything you want), that’s it. The editor is generally is smart enough to know what language you are current writing in (and of course you can override it when you need to), and so the universal “add a comment” command that you learn once will always add a comment in the proper syntax for the language you are currently editing! Just another motivation to learn one editor and learn it well!

I will leave it as an exercise for the vim-using reader to post information for the equivilant command in vim!