A Letter From the Scientific Front- Mind Games

A vague new academic discipline creates a bonafide new-media star.

When Jack Arkush was a child, he would sometimes accompany his father downtown, where William Arkush was a mid-level advertising executive for the Kenner Agency. “He worked on campaigns for sporting goods, for eyewear,” Arkush says. “General-interest stuff that didn’t interest me.”

What interested the younger Arkush, as it turned out, were the elevators in his father’s office building. “The first time he took me to work, we walked into the lobby, and there were two elevators waiting,” Arkush says. “We stepped into one. As the doors closed, I saw people filing into the one across the way. We started to rise first, but when we got to the twentieth floor, where he worked, the people who took that other elevator were already there.”

Most people would accept that outcome with equanimity, if not indifference. Jack Arkush was different. He felt it as an injustice. “It didn’t bother me that we didn’t get to the twentieth floor first,” he said. “It bothered me that I didn’t understand exactly why we didn’t get there first.”

Today, Arkush—a portly, bearded man of fifty-eight—doesn’t have that problem. He works on the second floor of the Haber Building on the central campus of Watson University, and he takes the stairs. The building is named for Albert Haber, an engineer whose achievements in solid mechanics included patenting several viscoelastic materials for use in aerospace. “Haber would have hated what I do,” says Arkush. “He probably would have asked for my office to be removed from his building.” Arkush laughs. For the last fifteen years, he has been the head of the university’s tiny but influential Conceptual Engineering Department. “Other scientists can point to their products and their solutions,” he said. “I have only problems and questions.

Conceptual Engineering is not recognized by many university-level science departments: or rather, while it is recognized by nearly everyone in science, it is rarely recognized as a formal discipline. Conceptual Engineering is, in the broadest of terms, the process by which difficult and sometimes paradoxical circumstances are communicated between scientists in different fields. “You could also call it ‘shooting the shit’,” says Arkush, laughing. But after he stops laughing, he stands and walks to the other corner of his office, to a desk occupied by a slim middle-aged woman named Diane Paranzino. “For more than forty years, I’ve been preoccupied with that elevator problem in my father’s office building,” he says. “From time to time, I have brought it up with friends, and nearly everyone is interested, on some level. Nearly everyone thinks they can explain a part of it to me. And nearly everyone wants to.”

“That’s an optimistic want to look at it,” Paranzino says. Arkush laughs again. “Diane joined us here a few years ago. Prior to that, she was a civil engineer studying traffic patterns. Now she does what we all do, which is to read every industrial report, internal government assessment, and professional science paper we can get our hands on.”

“Indiscriminately,” Paranzino says.

“Exactly,” Arkush says. “We read them like dilettantes. We understand only what we understand, and the rest we leave behind. That’s what Conceptual Engineering is all about: the confidence that minds in various fields are all working on the same types of problems, and the belief that without a connection between wires in disparate disciplines, there will be no circuit.”

Paranzino opens the drawer of her desk and withdraws a paper entitled “Optimizing Access to Jetways.” “Exciting title,” she says sarcastically. “But a brilliant paper. This came in the other day. A man named Godfrey Chaisson, an architect who works for the Sydney, Australia airport wrote it. In it, Chaisson proposes something called the Rule of First Exposure.”

Arkush interrupts excitedly. “Let’s go back to my father’s office building,” he says. “Most of the elevators there stopped at the 5th floor, which was shipping. If you boarded the very first elevator available in the lobby, there was a high chance that it would make a stop at the 5th floor, at which time it would be passed by the other elevator. But in passing you, the other car becomes the one carrying the greater risk of First Exposure to any button pressed between the fifth and twentieth floors. Say it was the ninth floor. The other elevator, which has passed you, stops there, and your elevator passes it back. This process continues all up the shaft. So there must be an even number of stops along the way to restore the primacy of your elevator car.”

“But then what?” Paranzino says. “I have worked here for three years, and I never know what happens next.”

The question throws Arkush. “Nothing happens next,” he says. “Or the same thing happens next. There is no definite next. Real understanding is an excrescence. It builds up.”

For years, the excrescence was all Arkush had. He went home, slept, and came back to work to read more papers. Over the last few months, though, it has become increasingly likely that there is a definite next. Once a week or so, Arkush—or, more likely, Paranzino—speaks by phone with a man named David Lareau, who is a producer for the Knowledge Channel. Depending on the contents of the conversation, Lareau dispatches a small film crew to the university, where Arkush is filmed explaining the new theory. The explanation never lasts more than two minutes, and often it is less than one minute. The resulting footage is aired on the cable channel, between programs, often at odd hours. There is no real context offered, and onscreen Arkush is identified as “Professor Professor,” a name he acquired as the result of a happy accident in an internal email. To date, Lareau and Arkush have created only five “Professor Professor” shorts, and despite their small numbers and rather random appearances on-air, they have become one of the most successful series in the history of educational television, largely as a result of their appearance on the network’s website. The last Professor Professor short, which was posted at the network’s Web site in the first week of March, has been viewed by more than eleven million people.

They do not seem like surefire new-media hits. In a short entitled “Keyed Up”—the titles are provided by Lareau—Arkush discusses a computer-hardware-industry report that reveals that recent computer keyboards show a far greater incidence of breakage on the “S” and the “L” keys, which are struck with great frequency and often at a slight angle. “I’m not arguing that those keys should be reinforced,” he says. “Only that they are placed at greater risk by current use.” “Keyboard Fatigue” ends with a dizzying caveat: “Of course, this is only for English-language keyboards,” he says. “Frequency tables are not the same, even in other Latinate languages.”

Another short, entitled “Return to Vender,” addresses the placement of soda machines in sports arenas. Again, the source is an industry document, and again, Arkush goes to his general point with alacrity. “The studies show that there are, on average, three machines at the head of each entrance to a sports arena. The machine closest to the entrance is used by the greatest number of people and, as a result, runs out of product more quickly and breaks down more frequently. When it is empty or broken, it cannot be used, and the people move on to the second machine. The third machine receives the least use of all, which means that it remains stocked. It does not, however, mean that it is in the best shape, because a minor problem—maybe the change dispensation mechanism sticks—is not as likely to be discovered.”

The Professor Professor shorts are about many things—elevators and vending machines, of course, as well as toll booths, microwave-oven clocks, and public toilets—but ultimately they are about only one thing, which is the way in which individual objects are used by large numbers of people. That is what attracted Lareau to Arkush in the first place. “I saw him speak at a conference, and he was the same guy he is now: unbelievably and maybe even unhealthily concerned with the paradox of detail,” Lareau says. “Then about twenty minutes later, I saw him in the parking lot. He was going from meter to meter, looking at which knobs were closest to snapping off or jamming. Some were closer than others, obviously, and Jack wanted to see which ones, and why. Since we live in a world that’s inhabited equally by people and by man-made objects intended to serve those people, I believe that we need to have a better understanding of the relationship between them. That’s where Jack comes in. It’s like he’s writing a history of the battle of the sexes, except that it’s between men and machines.”

The machines may not have noticed Professor Professor, but the men have. In addition to the popularity of the online series, the Conceptual Engineering Department has become the focus of media attention and the recipient of a number of large grants, as well as some contract work from large corporations. Arkush views these developments characteristically. “I guess companies do have some curiosity about the way that their products are or are not like other products in other industries,” Arkush says. “I like to think that it’s a sign of the overall curiosity of the scientific mind.”

“You’ll never hear it from Jack,” Paranzino says, “but there’s something very solid and sane at the cornerstone of most of our work, and that’s the fact that most engineers and planners commit one fundamental error when it comes to designing machines and machine systems. They attempt to design the most efficient system across the board. This is a rather inefficient view of efficiency.”

Paranzino is right; you will not hear it from Arkush. “I don’t like themes,” Arkush says. “They take your mind off the details. You know what abstraction means, right? ‘Abs’ means away from, and ‘traction’ is to pull. You get pulled away from the concrete information in these reports we get and re-present.” Arkush is planning a new short based on a paper by a wildlife biologist about the migration habits of Canadian geese. “When I was young,” Arkush says, brandishing the geese-migration paper. “I used to stand out on the street with my bicycle, waiting for traffic to pass so I could cross. Cars rushed by, but there was always one car lagging behind. It bothered me tremendously: why was the last car always the slowest? That seems obvious and stupid, almost like a child’s riddle—the last is the slowest because the slowest is the last. But it turns out that there’s a whole complex logic behind order in a group, and the way that a roadway—or in the case of this paper, a migration route—is cleared for cross-traffic. I’m trying to really absorb it. Like so much of what we do, it’s not exactly in my field. But I’m waiting for that eureka moment.
– Ben Greenman

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