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MIT Technology Review

Ahoy, Engineers!

From STEM to stern, Herman Melville’s classic whaling novel resonates with MIT students.

October 20, 2015

Holding a copy of Moby-Dick high, Stubb the second mate urges his rowers forward, in fierce pursuit of their prey. His shipmates, facing him in pairs along a conference table in Building 2, strain at their oars. The whale, a senior in biological engineering, breaches and dives in the vast watery space between table and blackboards, seemingly unaware of the hunters in his wake. As they approach, Stubb cries out, “Stand up, Tashtego!—give it to him!” A sophomore in physics leaps from the stern, makes her way laboriously to the bow, and hurls a mighty harpoon. Stubb secures the line, and the boat springs into action, sailors clinging to their seats. The “Nantucket sleigh ride” has begun.

Wyn Kelley and the Morgan.

In Herman Melville’s whaling saga, this chase ends with Stubb killing the whale, but in our session of 21L.705 (Major Authors), the whale escapes. Still, the crew has engaged in a vital element of Melville’s 1851 novel: the physical excitement and intricate engineering of the hunt. Melville knew intimately the aspects of whaling that MIT students can well appreciate: the system of hemp, wood, iron, and human muscle that launches the harpoon and brings the whale home; the sensitive tools that navigate the ship and handle sails; the hand-wrought machinery that hauls and cuts whale blubber; the furnace that refines it into oil. MIT students also understand the physics of wind and weather, and the engineering that gives sailors an advantage against superior forces.

Throughout years of discussing Moby-Dick at MIT, I have been inspired by students who know much more about its science and technology than I do. One year, for example, an ocean engineering student wrote a brilliant essay about equilibrium—a critical issue in managing a ship and in structuring Melville’s narration, too. And MIT science majors have always enlightened our discussions of the cetology chapters, which delve into anatomy, taxonomy, and evolution. But I did not fully appreciate the importance of STEM knowledge in Melville studies until I participated in the “38th Voyage” of the Charles W. Morgan in the summer of 2014.

The Morgan, a magnificent whaling ship built in the same year and shipyard as the one on which Melville labored in the early 1840s, has for almost a century rested at Mystic Seaport in Connecticut, where children clamber over its decks and fans of Moby-Dick have stayed up all night to read the novel aloud. Following renovations, the ship set sail along the coast from which she once launched to hunt whales all over the world. I was one of 90 “Voyagers”—artists, musicians, nautical buffs, teachers, descendants of whalers—invited along.

To help chronicle the journey, I studied wind and weather as information systems, looking at how forces acting on the ship and on sailors’ bodies convey messages useful to the sailors’ work and ultimately their survival. Melville wrote extensively about weather, and I was curious to see how sailors tap into this nondigital information network, and to observe how nature’s messages are interpreted and conveyed. Watching the mates measure winds, “read” the sails, and yell orders that the sailors instantly obeyed, I understood that Melville’s characters operate within an information system as complex as our own.

This intensely networked environment speaks directly to MIT’s students. Melville portrays Stubb as a leader who knows how to inspire the sailors to their utmost efforts. He coaxes them to remain “easy” and “cool” while pulling the dead “perpendicular out of their graves” as they collaborate to achieve heroic results.
MIT labs and classrooms, like ­Melville’s high-stakes whaling culture, require the long stroke and quick strike, hours of patient coöperative work, and the moment of sudden, decisive focus. Our classroom exercise enacted what students daily experience: the joy of the chase, the physics of joint effort, the rewards of sustained labor.

Melville scholar Wyn Kelley, a senior lecturer in literature, is associate director of the Melville Electronic Library.