The flower in the bullet

Rohit Gupta | Updated on January 11, 2018 Published on July 07, 2017
Off the beaten track: Soviet visions of a futuristic “bullet train”

Off the beaten track: Soviet visions of a futuristic “bullet train”

….the journey from blowdarts to flowcharts

The history of ballistics is the story of matter trying to propel itself through space, faster and farther. In his book Of Arms And Men: A History Of War, Weapons & Aggression, Robert O’Connell notes that “around 1832, a Captain Norton of the British 34th regiment became interested in the blowgun darts he saw during his tour of southern India”. The lotus-pith covered base of the dart would expand to close the bore, thereby maximising the pressure of air inside.

The same principle would later emerge in France as the conoidal bullet, “with a hollow base shaped to deform upon firing to create a tight seal with the gun barrel”. Philosopher Manuel DeLanda writes that it “proved to be the most lethal innovation on the battlefield in centuries” ( War in the Age of Intelligent Machines, 1991). It increased the range and accuracy of infantry to the extent that the drizzle-bombing style of artillery began to seem wasteful, “disrupting a balance of power that was centuries-old”.

The first man-made projectile to land on the surface of the moon in 1959, Lunik 2 by the erstwhile Soviet Union, looks remarkably like a blowdart or bullet. In the same year, the golden age of Russian science literature produced a landmark publication with Igor Irodov’s Problems In General Physics (Mir Publishers, Moscow). His pithy questions read like high poetry of the Space Age: “A body is thrown from the surface of the Earth at an angle alpha...”, “A balloon starts rising from the surface of the Earth”, “A cannon fires successively two shells...”, “A copper connector of mass M slides down two copper bars due to gravity...”. By some freak alchemy of physics, all of these situations could be distilled into neat algebraic equations and “solved”.

After the Space Age and the Cold War, the development of the internet led to a situation where, instead of a bullet, an entire gun can be sent over optic fibre at the speed of light as an abstract diagram and reassembled by a 3-D printer. If the conoidal bullet disrupted the strategy of war after centuries, could the internet lead to a similar upheaval in geopolitical conflicts?

In a sense, what we envisage here is an attempt to reduce physical phenomena, and indeed matter, to abstract designs and mathematical equations. However, most phenomena in nature are too messy and chaotic to be encapsulated in pretty equations. They refuse to be beaten down and turned into information; even today one cannot send an olfactory experience down a telecommunication network.

According to Manuel DeLanda, the steam engine is no different than an electric motor now, because: “An abstract motor, the mechanism dissociated from the physical contraption, consists of three separate components: a reservoir (or steam, for example), a form of exploitable difference (the heat/cold difference) and a diagram or programme for the exploitation of differences.” Moreover, just as the opposite mechanism of an electric motor is a dynamo or generator, the opposite of a steam engine is a refrigerator.

This abstract diagram that both the motor and the steam engine obey is a remarkable, but often overlooked development in the history of science. Both the steam engine and the electric motor represent curves in an abstract space of possibility (known as “phase space”).

In such a formulation, all the possible trajectories that a bullet can take upon being fired, the concentrations of various chemicals in a reactor, the harvest in a monsoon, stock prices in an economy the size of India, to an arrhythmic heartbeat, or the motion of planets in a solar system over millions of years, is its phase space. What happens to a biological species inside an evolving ecosystem is now its “trajectory”, analogous to the conoidal bullet or a space probe. In a sense, the entire history and future of the object or phenomenon in question — a bullet, a balloon, a species of cicada in the Amazon forest, a motor or steam engine — is now visualised as a geometric curve in time, a kind of flow over a landscape of possibilities, in any number of dimensions.

Over centuries, this geometrisation of nature would evolve rapidly with geometry itself, culminating in one of the greatest mathematical feats in history. Donal O’Shea recalls in his book on the subject: Upon solving the famous Poincaré Conjecture, the Russian mathematician Grigori Perelman “invited the audience to imagine our universe as an element in the gigantic abstract mathematical set of all possible universes. He reinterpreted the equation as describing these potential universes moving as if they were drops of water running down enormous hills within a giant landscape. As each element moves, the curvature varies within the universe it represents and it approaches fixed values in some regions. In most cases, the universes develop nice geometries, some the standard Euclidean geometry we studied in school, some very different.”

Rohit Gupta explores the history of science as Compasswallah; @fadesingh

Published on July 07, 2017
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