Zen and the Art of Engineering

Author: Patrick Kelly
For Galen King, the line between the arts and engineering isn’t blurred — it’s nonexistent

Galen King, professor of mechanical engineering, would like you to leave your stereotypes at the door. The ones that say engineers predominantly use the left hemisphere of their brains while artists dwell almost exclusively on the right side. The ones that insist that if you’re hardwired to calculate limits and wield differential equations, then you’re precluded from creative pursuits like painting, drawing, writing, or playing an instrument.

Professor Galen King with the Lafayette Symphony Orchestra

Music Man: As part of a performance, here with the Lafayette Symphony Orchestra, or practicing alone (inset), Professor Galen King uses music to soothe his soul.

Instead, King offers a simple yet powerful message: We’re all human, and it’s in our very nature to create. And the energy that goes into composing a symphony or painting a portrait isn’t so different from what it takes to design a suspension bridge, an earthquake-resistant skyscraper, or a solar panel array.

“I think there’s very little creative difference in the flavor of doing things with the performing or visual arts and the design process involved in engineering,” King says. “Both are driven by very human needs, driven by aesthetics, driven by the desire of the individual to create something that’s pleasing to themselves and others.

“In both cases, there’s a great deal of expertise needed to master the technique. But when you get to the point that you have mastered the technique, the difference between it being music and just a bunch of notes you’re playing is the spark of divine that comes from inside the performer. The same is true on the engineering side. Anyone can apply a set of rules, a set of equations, but the difference between it being aesthetically elegant and simply functional is based on that same spark. The only difference lies in the tools you have to work with.”

Since his childhood, King has found his creative outlet in music. Although he currently spends most of his time playing the bassoon and contrabassoon — through various engagements with the Lafayette Symphony Orchestra and the Lafayette Citizens Band — he’s dabbled throughout his life with everything from cello and saxophone to a self-built harpsichord.

He explains his fascination with the bassoon from an engineering standpoint. “I like the bassoon the best because it’s the most primitive of instruments,” he says. “And there’s the aspect that you have to make your own reeds. So there’s actual engineering involved in making the device sound the way you want it to sound. It’s really quite fascinating to first build and then use this very complex double reed.”

Even though music was his first love, King admits that engineering is a more consistent way to pay the bills. “I consider music more of an avocation than a vocation,” he says. “But it’s incredibly important for my mental health. I’ve always had the gift of math and science. I used to joke in college that I’d enroll in extra math and chemistry courses to raise my GPA, but it’s music that keeps me balanced and enables me to be a better engineer, a better professor, a better person, really.”

King also takes pride in his advisory role with Purdue’s Solar Racing Team. The team’s most recent accolades — to add to a long list — are first place in the solar power category and the People’s Choice Award in the Shell Eco-marathon Americas, held in Houston in March. The team’s car, the Pulsar, achieved the equivalent of 4,548 miles per gallon.

“I’m very serious about my role as advisor,” King says. “The students do it all — they’re an incredibly bright and talented group, and they don’t much need my help. I advise.

“We’re all sculptors. We use different tools, different chisels. But fundamentally, we’re all humanistic. We’re all trying to contribute something to this world. When it comes down to it, we’re all very much the same.”