Dust devils

I found this quote from my favourite book, Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, on Chris Corrigans website.

Randy spent plenty of time chasing and carrying out impromptu experiements on dust devils while walking to and from school, to the point of getting bounced of the grille of a shrieking Buick once when he chased a roughly shopping-cart-sized one into the street in an attempt to climb into the centre of it. He knew they were both fragile and tenacious. You could just stomp down on one of them and sometimes it would just dodge your foot, or swirl around it, and keep going. Other times, like if you tried to catch one in your hands, it would vanish — but then you’d look up and see another one just like it twenty feet away, running away from you. The whole concept of matter spontaneously organizing itself into grotesquely improbable and yet indisputably self-perpetuating and fairly robust systems sort of gave Randy the willies later on, when he began to learn about physics.

There was no room for dust devils in the laws of physics, at least in the rigid form in which they were usually taught. There is a kind of unspoken collusion going on in mainstream science education: you get your competent but bored, insecure and hence stodgy teacher talking to an audience divided between engineering students, who’re going to be responsible for making bridges that won’t fall down or airplanes that won’t suddenly plunge vertically into the ground at six hundred miles an hour, and who by definition get sweaty palms and vindictive attitudes when their teacher suddenly veers off track and begins raving about wild and completely nonintuitive phenomena; and physics students, who derive much of their self-esteem from knowing that they are smarter and morally purer than the engineering students, and who by definition don’t want to hear about anything that makes no fucking sense. This collusion results in the professor saying: (something along the lines of) dust is heavier than air, therefore it falls until it hits ground. That’s all there is to know about dust. The engineers love it because they like their issues dead and crucified like butterflies under glass. The physicists love it because they want to think they understand everything. No one asks difficult questions. And outside the windows, the dust devils continue to gambol across the campus.

I find this particular quote interesting for two reasons. First, the description of dust devils as “matter spontaneously organizing itself into grotesquely improbable and yet indisputably self-perpetuating and fairly robust systems” is one of the best demonstrations of complexity theory that I’ve ever seen. That’s exactly what it’s about. Order appearing out of nowhere, air and dust suddenly organizing itself. Also the vortex itself has no central structure, no core. At any given moment, the vortex consists of the air and dust passing through it at that particular instant. Later, most of that material may have been replaced with new stuff as the vortex moves. Which is true of all living systems, including humans. Did you know, that the individual atoms and molecules in your body are continually being replaced? That some years from now, you’ll have a mostly new body, since the matter has been replaced. What remains the same is the organization of that matter. The blueprint. The software, if you will. You’re a funnel, sucking up mass.

The other reason I find this quote interesting is the described conflict between engineers and physics students. I studied IT with both engineers and university students, and let me tell you, that’s exactly how it was. The university crowd takes the moral high ground because they don’t care about the real world, while the engineers laugh at them for just that.

Well written, funny and real. That’s Cryptonomicon. Now read it!

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