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February 5, 2023 6 min
I recently learned about a tower in the heart of Old Town Baltimore, Maryland. It’s a round tower with walls 4 feet thick at the base, made entirely of red brick. The tower is 234 feet tall. These days the tower is dwarfed by the modern skyscrapers around it but 234 feet is still quite impressive, especially for something constructed 195 years ago. In fact, when it was first built in 1828 it was the tallest structure in the United States. Today it is a Historical Landmark. Not because of its height but because of its purpose. If you didn’t know anything about it and were to give it just a passing glance you’d probably assume it was just a smoke stack rising out of some old factory. But it’s not. There is no factory beneath it because the tower itself was the factory. It’s called the Old Baltimore Shot Tower. It was a munitions factory, and in it’s day it produced 2½ million pounds of perfectly round lead musket shot—musket balls—every year. What I think the coolest thing is about a shot tower—and there were several of them all over the US back in the day—is how the shot was made. It wasn’t lead being poured into molds. That was old-school and tedious and a process full of imperfections. No, the tower was built so tall because shot was made by showering down droplets of molten lead at the top and allowing those drops to fall the entire height of the tower. On the journey down the laws of physics took over—gravity, surface tension, air pressure—and by the time these droplets completed their fall they had hardened into perfect spheres. Ingenious. So why have I told you this story? Well, in part because I’m a nerd and I think stuff like that is pretty cool. Also, probably because we just returned from the International Builders Show which itself is all about pushing forward innovation and finding the next ingenious idea. But on a deeper level, the thought of molten lead turning round all by itself reminded me of a truth about our universe—there is no such thing as a straight line. Straight lines are a human invention based on our limited human perceptions. The reason molten lead forms all by itself into round shapes is because—just like everything from raindrops, to tree trunks, to planets and stars—the most common geometries in nature are curves and spheres. We now know that everything is curved. Gravity is curved. All of space and time is curved. We like to make what we believe to be straight lines, but the truth, the real truth, is Reality itself is curved. And I can’t help but think there’s somehow a lesson for us there. I love straight lines and boxes. You love straight lines and boxes. But the universe doesn’t make straight lines or boxes. It’s us—only us—who like to draw lines between things. In our minds it’s easy to draw straight lines. Lines between your property and mine. Your beliefs and mine. The color of your skin and mine. Your gender and mine. Your country and mine. We count our wealth in straight little columns. We lay out our lives on grids. The industrialized world depends upon time lines, assembly lines and endless lines of code. And when things don’t go right in our world we end up with front lines, picket lines, police lines, and bread lines. We say the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. But none of it is actually true. It only looks true to us because our perspectives are so small. The lesson of the Old Baltimore Shot Tower—the lesson of free-falling molten lead magically turning into perfect spheres—is that in this universe of ours there isn’t a perfectly straight line to be found anywhere. The universe wants to bend. It’s only we who refuse to bend. All our straight lines, our rules, our rigid beliefs, our crystal clear separations, our unbending prejudices, our general lack of pliability … none of it is natural. It’s all an illusion—a byproduct of being so small. Straight lines in our houses are perfectly harmless, but maybe it’s time to let go of straight lines in our hearts. Maybe it’s time to finally accept that the universe wants to bend. That everything is actually far less straightforward than we first thought. Maybe it’s time to see that hidden in every curve is a life and elegance and beauty of its own. Maybe not having so many straight lines in us is a good thing. Maybe curves are enough. Maybe curves are the only way forward. Maybe if we let ourselves free-fall a little more often we’d turn into something beautifully round too. Straight lines build beautiful houses but maybe letting go of some of our straight lines is the only way we’re going to build ourselves a beautiful life.
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