Washington, DC, October, 1997. The appetizer of nachos arrive, moments after the dispatching of the first round of margs. The salsa is white-people tepid. I am having dinner with the Curator of Technology from the Smithsonian, and we are discussing the intersection of Ernst Mach’s research in Vienna.
“Mach espoused ‘sensationalism,'” the Curator says, “the concept that sensory data – color, space, time, tone – comprise the limits of one’s world. Now, the question is: Why, when he was mainly interested in such considerations as this, was he also interested in the flow of air over moving objects at high speeds?”
“The faster you go,” I say, crisping a chip, “the fewer limits to your very existence. If color, space, time and tone are the limits of our experience, speed is a means to break through those limits.”
I lick a swath of salt off my glass. I tell him it is my understanding that Mach was studying the “bow wave” and the mysterious “bang” that happens when a bullet whistles past someone’s ear. His interest was the physiological effects of shell shock. Ergo, he ascertained that bullets were traveling at the speed of sound…
“The sound of the bullet is as damaging as the ripped flesh from the bullet,” I tell the Curator. “That is the damage of fear. I don’t know why Ernst Mach was interested in the flow of gasses over moving objects, but I do know he used a bullet.” I take a drink. “To me, the great irony is that the human-guided devices that either broke the sound barrier or gave-it-the-ol’-college-try, were bullet-shaped. The Bell X-1. The Spirit of America is shaped like an arrow. Art Arfons’ stuff is shaped like a shotgun shell.
“Whatever the example, the drivers became at one with the bullet. They became the bullet.”
We order another round of margs.