Sunday, December 13, 2009

Applied math, the bomb, the road

I've just started a very good book on applied math, Logan's "Applied Mathematics". It starts out with one of my favorite subjects, dimensional analysis. But...

Logan's very first worked-out example follows:

"...we consider a calculation made by the British applied mathematician G. I. Taylor in the late 1940s to compute the yield of the first atomic explosion after viewing photographs of the spread of the fireball."

I read this within a few hours of finishing Cormac McCarthy's "The Road", his moving post-nuclear holocaust novel. The world after a nuclear war would be bleak indeed, with nearly every living thing dead. Yet in Logan's book (and some other books I've read) atomic weapons are just another interesting technical example. Why is it so hard to look at evil for what it is, when it's technically interesting?

Is this why we (and that means me) can read crime fiction, and be fascinated by the cleverness of the criminal's plans, even as we find solace in the eventual triumph of the detective (spy, policeman, etc.) who sorts things out and delivers justice?

We need to be as clever as serpents, I suppose, but there is a difference between understanding the darkness of human nature, and finding the darkness interesting. Thinking about the mechanics of how fast an atomic blast travels distances us, just a little, from thinking about what it does to women, men, and children. And we shouldn't ever give in to that.