Beware of the Spherical Horse in a Vacuum

Spherical Horse in a Vacuum

The Spherical Horse in a Vacuum
(A Work in Progress, Physicist-Style)

Back in the dark, distant days before the World Wide Wibble, the sort of memes which nowadays pop up on Facebook walls and geeky websites still existed; they just had to find other ways of spreading themselves from one susceptible brain to another.  The invention of the photocopier had much to answer for in this respect, and many a 1980s student flat or postgrad cubby-hole had grubby marks, cracks and mysterious stains on the walls covered by greying photostats of circulating humour.  Failing to open a can of beans in the manner appropriate to one’s scientific stereotype was a common theme.  Much of the rest was to do with beer, coffee and peculiar smells.

For some reason all this nerdy silliness came back to me at the weekend when I was looking for a story summing up the dangers of excessive reliance on theory, and was immediately put in mind of the case of the spherical horse.  That’s what a physics degree does to you I’m afraid.  It’s lifelong and totally incurable.  For those fortunate enough to have avoided this fate, I should probably explain that getting as far as graduation in this discipline tends to involve a lot of very complicated maths, much of which is applied to strangely simple theoretical examples.  All perfectly fine in its natural habitat, but the approach sometimes needs a bit of tweaking if it’s to be useful anywhere else.

Anyhow, back to that unfortunate equine…  The story comes in many guises, involving various domestic birds and beasts from chickens to camels, but the version I remember involves a super-rich oil tycoon with a passion for horse-racing.  His horses did well, but he wanted them to do better, and he figured that if physicists could work out how to split the atom, they ought to be clever enough to get his horses running that tiny bit faster as well.  He advertised, and in due course a physicist arrived and set to work with computer and hideously complex formulae.  Six months later, the tycoon was starting to wonder when he was going to start seeing results from his very considerable investment.  (Even theoretical physicists need funding, don’t you know?)  He summoned said physicist to his office.

“How’s it going?” he asked.  “Where are my winners?  My world record holders?  My timeless, immortal fame?”

“Oh, it’s going really well,” replied the physicist.  “In fact, I got a solution just yesterday.”

“Great!” said the tycoon.  “Let’s go racing….!”

“Er… not quite yet, Sir….”

“You see, so far, I’ve only solved the problem for the case of a spherical horse in a vacuum…..”


Posted November 19, 2013 by HVS in Memes, Physics

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