"the deadliest bullshit is odorless and transparent" - William Gibson

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

it would take a whole pool full of syrup to turn me into a physicist

A recent article published in Nature documents the findings of a pair of curious scientists (Cussler and Gettlefinger) at the University of Minnesota who dared to answer the age-old physics question "do humans swim slower in syrup or water?" Apparently, this question has been a cocktail party sticking point for scientists going all the way back to Newton and Huygens. No computer models or theory papers for the audacious Cussler and Gettlefinger, no, they jumped through 22 seperate hoops of bureaucratic approval and filled a 25 meter swimming pool full of syrup and had motherfuckers race each other. Brilliance. Resplendant briliance, "a diamond bullet right through my forehead...Perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure."

So, what happened? Of course, you swim the same speed in syrup or water. it's counterintuitive, but here's the science:

"The reason, explains Cussler, is that while you experience more 'viscous drag' (basically friction from your movement through the fluid) as the water gets thicker, you generate more forwards force from every stroke. The two effects cancel each other out.

That's not always the case. Below a certain threshold of speed and size, viscous drag becomes the dominant force, making gloopy fluids are more difficult to swim through. Had Cussler done his experiment on swimming bacteria instead of humans, he would have recorded much slower times in syrup than in water.

I can only imagine the feeling that they must have had when they finally looked out across that pool full of syrup on a early Minnesota morning. Gettlefinger is a world class swimmer and missed going to the olympics by a hair. The olympics have got to be a unbelievable thrill and honor and accomplishment and all that, but I don't know if I were in his place that I would trade the syrup for a trip to Athens. Just to think about the story makes me want to shoot off some fireworks and run in the streets.

And to top it off, the natural world cooperated with the art of the whole thing. What a perfect metaphor and statement. You can swim through syrup or shit or whatever just as fast as through water. It just feels harder.

I've been reading a bunch of Walter Benjamin lately and this statement pops up in a few places, "According to a legend from the Talmud, even the angels are created-new ones at every moment and in countless hosts - simply to sing their hymns before God, then cease to be and disappear into nothingness."

That's what this 300 kilograms of syrup endeavor is, "a hymn sung before God", nothing less. Bravo. Bravo.


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