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Winning essay explains cultural primacy of plumbing

April 20, 2011

Making the case that much of the advance of human society and culture would have been drastically hindered without the wonders of plumbing, Arizona State University engineering student Jessica Piper took top honors in the ASU Origins Project Science and Culture Essay Competition.

She accepted congratulations on stage before an audience more than 2,000 at  ASU’s Gammage auditorium on April 9, during an event presented by the Origins Project as part of its Science and Culture Festival 2011. It featured a lecture by world-renowned theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking and a performance of “The Planets” by the ASU Symphony.

Lawrence Krauss, ASU Foundation Professor and Origins Project director, explains that the Science and Culture Festival “was designed to demonstrate that science and culture are connected in many important ways. Origins highlights that connection because both science and cultural pursuits are driven by a desire to come to a better understanding of ourselves and our place in the cosmos.”

Essay contest entrants were challenged by the university’s English department to write about a scientific discovery or technological advance they think has had the most significant impact on culture, and to explain why.

Writers of the essays selected as the top three earned scholarship funds from ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

“I thought people might choose to do something on more modern advances like electricity or the microchip,” Piper explains. “I thought about where we would be without running water. People don’t think of plumbing when they think about big scientific discoveries, but it’s so crucial to how we live.”

The essay “Plumbing the Depths of Culture” won the $1,000 first-place scholarship prize for Piper, a freshman chemical engineering major in the School for the Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy, one of ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. She’s also a student in ASU’s Barrett, The Honors College.

Krauss says he chose Piper’s essay “because it was not only well written but particularly creative. Plumbing is not what most people think of as the most significant scientific advance, but she is exactly correct that it has had a profound effect on our society. I enjoyed the out-of-the-box thinking it represented, especially since out –of-the-box thinking is part of what the Origins Project is about.”

A $500 second-place scholarship went to Shannon Geisler, a freshman majoring in design studies, for her essay, “A World at Home,” in which she argued for digital communications as the most important technological advance.

A $250 third-place scholarship went to Pooja Raghani, a Barrett honors student majoring in finance in the W. P. Carey School of Business. Her essay, “Airplanes: Correspondence in the Sky,” focused on the societal impact of airplanes enabling people around the world to connect in new ways.

The ASU Origins Project explores fundamental questions about the origins of the universe and human existence. It promotes inquiry, enhances science education and seeks to broaden public understanding of science issues.

"Many of the ASU faculty and symposium guests involved in the Origins Project and its festival are well known not just for what they've discovered but for how well they've communicated their discoveries and insights to fellow scientists and the public,” says Peter Turchi, a member of the Origins festival committee and director of the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing in ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

“It’s fitting to offer an opportunity for ASU students to follow the lead of these scientists, to express their own understanding of the importance of an aspect of science – in this case, technology – in their lives," Turchi says.

Piper says she considers plumbing a significant technological leap “because it allowed us to stop being nomadic tribes and eventually create cities that could keep their environments clean and healthy.”

The graduate of Casa Grande Union High School in Casa Grande, Ariz., relates the fundamental value of plumbing to her goal to make a societal contribution through a career in chemical engineering.

“Everything is chemistry. There’s chemistry involved when we breathe and in the clothes we wear,” she says. “Chemistry or chemical engineering is part of almost everything we make. It has an impact on so many areas.”

Piper says the Origins Project essay contest reinforces what ASU is emphasizing to its science and engineering students – that communications and writing skills are becoming critical to success in those career fields because of the increasing necessity to engage the public in discussing the goals of research, technological advancement and complex science issues.

Plus, Piper adds, the scholarship funds for her winning essay “definitely helps” support her education.

“I might look for more essay contest opportunities,” she says.