Monday, May 19, 2014

Zeno's Paradox? No, Thanks.

Post by Jenny

Reading through my book club book for the month—The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives, by Leonard Mlodinow—I was reacquainted with an idea I learned about years ago, probably in my token college philosophy class. Zeno’s Paradox is this: Speedy Achilles is racing a tortoise. The much slower tortoise is given a head start. By the time Achilles reaches the spot where the tortoise was, the tortoise will have moved farther ahead. Again, Achilles has to catch up, and again the tortoise has moved. Even though the distances between them get smaller and smaller, Achilles will never catch the tortoise because he must travel an infinite number of finite distances, and that would take an infinite amount of time.

Apparently, much has been written about this paradox. I am not a philosopher or a mathematician, so these kinds of logic problems don’t keep me up at night. But the idea of an ‘infinite number of finite distances’ struck me. My gosh, said I. That sounds just like trying to get a novel published. Writing the first draft gets me halfway there. Edits get me half of the remaining distance. The synopsis, the query letters, the submissions…each smaller step gets me closer, but will I ever actually get there? Not according to Zeno. Writes Mlodinow:  “Zeno’s conclusion: you can never get anywhere.”

I’m assuming Zeno was not the most popular guy in his critique group.

Obviously, in real life, Achilles would have kicked the tortoise’s butt, if indeed tortoises even have butts, and people get novels published all the time. (The interval between writing that first word and reaching the finish line only feels like infinity.) Zeno’s paradox doesn’t pan out, because, say Mlodinow and other brainy folks who know this stuff, at a constant speed, time is proportional to distance covered, “so since the total distance is finite, as is the total time…motion is possible after all.” Thank goodness.

So, take that, you dusty pile of bones formerly known as Zeno. We writers will not be waylaid by your paradox. As long as we keep moving, it doesn’t matter what size or how numerous our steps are. We’ll get where we’re going. Eventually.

Which makes you feel like you’re making progress with your writing: a few big steps or a lot of small ones?



RichardK said...

I'd like to respond to your column but my brain melted when I attempted to resolve the paradox. I need to go to the market and buy that thing you use to, um, you know, flsoafldl.....

Sarah Sullivan said...

Well now I just feel stupid. : (

Shirley Drew said...

Love this post, Jenny. And you ask a tough question. I guess I feel progress in the little steps--but ELATION in the big ones!

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