'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Friday, August 11, 2006

A Tribute To A Great 'Nitpicker'

"Why would one want to nitpick with ...a wonderful idea?? - unless of course one gets one's highs from it???"
- a blog comment, posted sometime in 2005.

I was reminded of the above comment when I was at home in Kerala a few weeks back...

I was leafing thru my old copy of Yakov Perelman's 'Physics for Entertainment'. The glittering white of the paper had faded; but the characteristic 'progress publishers fragrance' still persisted and the articles read crisp and sharp. I reread after a long time, the article on Jules Verne's 'From The Earth to the Moon' (the 19th century science fiction novel describing a trip to space and moon). Perelman clinically analyses the main idea of the novel - a spacecraft being shot to the moon from a giant cannon - and shows thru simple equations of dynamics how this concept is fatally flawed;the acceleration required to be achieved within the barrel of the cannon is so huge that the weight of every single object in the spacecraft would grow several thousand-fold - the space travelers would get crushed by their own weight. "Even Barbicane's hat would begin to weigh something like 15 tons. That is much more than enough to smash him to pulp".

Perelman does not lay off at that. He says: "Jules Verne was indeed aware of the problems such extreme acceleration could cause - his spacecraft does have some springs and cushions to reduce its impact. But honestly, those schemes are nowhere near adequate. I doubt if reducing the weight of the hat to 14 tonnes from 15 would have any noticeable impact on Barbicane's fate!". And he triumphantly signs off: "Thus we conclude our simple analysis which has emphatically put paid to the grandly imaginative scheme of Jules Verne's characters!"

Elsewhere in the same work, there is a shorter piece on Verne's 'Journey to the center of the Earth'. After briefly summarizing Verne's plot, Perelman begins the Physics thus: "Well, you might be wondering whether Verne's scheme is feasible. To verify that it is totally invalid, there is no need for you to dig a pit into the bowels of the earth; all that is required is pen and paper; and basic physics!".

In yet another article Perelman, using a formula due to Euler (note: I have never encountered this formula since) shows up a 'feat' of yet another Jules Verne hero - he singlehandedly steadies a large ferry-boat, hauling it by a rope, having first wound the rope a few times on a stout peg - as something rather ...commonplace.

But the most devastating shot is reserved for H.G.Wells, arguably, an even greater writer of science fiction than Jules Verne. "The Invisible Man (as conceived by Wells) cannot but be BLIND!"

Yes, I do remember being somewhat (jealously) outraged by what THEN seemed to be Perelman's triumphant chest-thumping. Perhaps some other reader would even have told Perelman (I had no chance; he died in Leningrad - probably in the siege of Leningrad - in 1942): "Okay, okay, you may have got the Physics right. But at least have a heart for those superb writers and their wonderful ideas; it is perhaps okay to point out their flaws but no need to rub it in like that!"

And yeah, 'rub it in' Perelman really did, and how! "Physics..." also features: "The Chapter Jules Verne failed to write", an amazingly evocative (fictional but scientifically accurate) description of weightlessness in space which is right up there with the best science fiction ever written!


  • At 3:15 AM, Blogger Karthik said…

    Hi Nanda,
    Really felt happy when i read this article. I have the book at home in Trivandrum. My father bought them a long time back when the erstwhile U.S.S.R was propagating communism and such books where available at dead cheap prices. Even i read the analysis of Perylman explaining why those concepts wouldnt work.

    But we have to realise that even imagining those hallowed concepts takes some creativity..:-)


Post a Comment

<< Home