The Story Behind That 9,000-Word Quora Post on Airplane Cockpits

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(Yes, there is a 9,000-word Quora post on airplane cockpits.)

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It used to be that a key ingredient in human knowledge was the suppression of human passion. From science's method to journalism's, people claimed authority by proving how little they were able to care about the knowledge they were creating. But that's changing, and quickly. Increasingly, it's passion itself -- messy, quirky, productive passion -- that is guiding what, and how, we know.

This is evidenced, most recently, by a question on Quora. 

"What do all the controls in an airplane cockpit do?" asked a wonderer on the crowd-sourced Q&A site. "There appear to be dials, knobs, and switches almost everywhere -- what do they all do and why are there so many of them? Seem to be many more than what I would expect would be needed to fly the aircraft."

Tim Morgan read that question, and sent an answer

"If you're talking about a commercial airliner," he replied, "then there's hundreds and hundreds. There are big, fat manuals describing what they all do. But, since you asked, buckle up."

He meant it. In response to the three-sentence Quora question, Morgan, a web developer and private pilot, proceeded to take Quora users -- and anyone else who happened to come across his post -- on an extended journey: through the mechanical workings of the airplane cockpit, through the intricate dance that takes place between pilot and plane, and, in general, through the small miracle of precision and power that makes us fragile little humans able to fly.

And: a very extended journey. A long-haul journey, you might say. If you were to ask Quora your own question -- "How did Tim Morgan answer that question about the controls of airplane cockpits?" -- you'd likely get an answer that includes the following stats:

Words: 9,322
Paragraphs: 162
Subcategories: 8
Images: 13
Uses of the word "knob": 74
Comments: 45+
Reposts: 15
Votes: 846

The answer would also include, most likely, the words "epic" and "awesome" and "amazing." And that's not just because of the post's length, or the wealth of information it contains, or the fact that, after reading it, you will probably be unable to look at an airplane or a pilot or a manual outflow valve control quite the same way again. It's also ... the joy. Seriously: the joy. It's the sheer enthusiasm, the I-know-something-you-want-to-know-about-and-I'm-gonna-tell-you-about-it excitement, that pretty much bursts through the answer's 9,322 words and 162 paragraphs. It is epic. It is awesome. It is amazing.

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The article, Morgan told me, was the product of eight "post-midnight hours" -- and hours spent not, by the way, in a state of effortless, in-the-zone flow, but spent engaged in hard work. "My first draft was rough and the result of tedious diligence," he says, "but was rewarding in that I was checking my own knowledge and solidifying what I knew." And then Kat Li, Quora's community manager, contacted Morgan to let him know that his answer would be featured on its site. At that point, Morgan says, "I took the time to go over it again and verify that everything was correct. I used an operations manual from a 737 simulator to check my facts." And "in the end it was a very personally rewarding experience, because I had had the operations manual lying around and had been meaning to really study it, and now I finally had my excuse."

So answering the Quora question was as much about learning as it was about sharing. And as for Morgan's overall motivation? "I can tell you with certainty that it is related to my pathological interest in aircraft," he says, "and in general a love to write and share knowledge."

This is telling. And it offers hints, in its little (and also, you know, loooooong) way, about how knowledge is changing in a web-ified world. What we know, archived online, is increasingly the product of personal interests and enthusiasms -- the exact kind that Quora so constructively surfaces. Collected, collective information is increasingly symbolized not by Britannica, but by Wikipedia -- written by amateurs who do the writing, literally, for the love of the information they share. Morgan isn't just a regular Quora contributor; he's also the creator of the flight-based image-sharing service Flightseein', and of the hilarious Ultimate Guide to Shooting Rubber Bands. He finds ways to convert his interests -- learning, building, flying -- into shared experiences. And he looks for ways to make his passions for those experiences infectious.

When it comes the cockpit post, Morgan notes,

Aviation isn't something that many people appreciate, and while simply listing off all the functions of every knob, switch, and dial in the cockpit doesn't really convey the depth and breadth of knowledge, skill, and dedication that encompasses aviation, it does bring people a little closer to that world. Really, it comes down to twin passions: a passion for flying, and a passion for enriching the world.

Passion. Passion. Passion. Exactly. And nothing expresses that so well as nearly 10,000 words presented, for your consideration, by a guy who really, really loves to fly.


Image: Hyungwon Kang/Reuters.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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