Posts Tagged ‘Ernst Mach’


November 3, 2008

Black Rock, Nevada, 1860. In the bleached and cracked playas and buttes of what was once Lake Lahontan, the Pauite Indians are under attack from Kit Carson and a buckskin battalion of pale faces. Carson and his troops are armed with 50 caliber round, lead balls that fire with a velocity at the muzzle of 1200 feet per second. The Pauite’s armament is mostly sticks and stones; they are terrified of the white man’s weaponry and the sounds whizzing by their heads. They fear the sound as much as they fear the imminent tearing of flesh.

Vienna, 1887. Logician and physicist Ernst Mach is attempting to isolate the psychoacoustical source and rationale for the psychological terror associated with gunfire. He tries to understand why soldiers engaged in battle with firearms are so emotionally volatile.

Mach endeavors to explain the how of what the Pauites already know: The sound of the air ripped asunder is an immediate reminder of one’s own mortality. At any given millisecond, something as precious as life can be snuffed. Shell shock. Faster than sound. Instantly. A crack and an echo.



November 3, 2008

“The inertia of any system is the result of the interaction of that system with the rest of the universe. In other words, every particle in the universe ultimately has an effect on every other particle.” – Ernst Mach, Mach’s Principle of Inertia (1893)

You are in either Bonneville, Black Rock, or perhaps Al Jafr. Pick one. While meditating on the desolation, you assume that space is merely emptiness. An absolute void. The desert merely nods in the affirmative.

Your inference is wrong. The desert lies. You are not the first to be hornswoggled by such supposedly empirical observation…

Ernst Mach – the man who uncovered the mystery of the speed of sound – was an empiricist and a logician. A logical positivist. He presupposed that space is merely emptiness. The Void. The Quantum Vacuum. He was wrong.

Space is loaded with stuff that won’t glow in the dark in any way that astronomers can spot.

This stuff is loaded with a so much mass that its gravitational field tugs and affects the velocity of everything else in the universe (including Land Speed racers).

Even though the mathematics of the day insisted upon the presence of a form of mass that instruments could not and (cannot) detect, Mach insisted that space was empty. If you couldn’t see the matter within the space, nothing was there. (He also insisted that the atom existed only as an abstraction, but that is another riff altogether and tangential to this one … )

Space has to have mass for inertia to tug on heavenly bodies. It takes the form of dark matter. The Mach Principle states that inertia depends on the reciprocal interaction of bodies, however distant; in other words, a body in motion tends to stay in motion unless acted upon by another force.

Dark matter is stuff the cosmologists of Mach’s day could not see; suffice it to say there is enough gas and dust that the vacuum as a condition of complete and absolute void does not exist.

Despite what the physics and the math of the day indicated had to be there, Ernst Mach made no never mind for the stuff in between the heavenly bodies – a pretty big snafu, cosmologically speaking.

Not even Einstein was able to suss out the Laws that truly guide (and guide us through) the Cosmos…

Dark matter: The entropy and chaos of the cosmos… Its presence was undetected, yet its gravitational pull tugs on all things. It is entropy that guides us, and it is entropy that acts as a force that slows us down… entropy equals inertia, and entropy is a force that acts counter to the infinite… and yields the finite…

The devil lurks in the entropy that tugs on our every thought and action like so much dark matter; he lurks in the banality that is Life on Planet Earth.

Yes, “every particle in the universe ultimately has an effect on every other particle.”

Specks of dust and pockets of gas gravitate towards a darkness so black we cannot see it and whose magnitude is so massive we cannot come to terms with how to measure it. The stuff we cannot see and don’t know how to measure made Einstein blink and made Ernst Mach draw a line in the sands of epistemology.

Ernst Mach is synonymous with “inertia.” But his own tug and resistance was not gravitational, it was intellectual.

The desert bleaches everything white as stone. It is a blank slate, according to a friend of mine who used to work in a junkyard. What the empiricists call “tabla rasa.” On a meta-level, perhaps my friend is right. The desert rarely puts up an argument. But it ain’t empty. And it puts up more resistance to human endeavor than the pull of a dark star on a cosmic body or spaceship set on warp speed.

By extension, a blank slate is perfect tableaux upon which one can foist his dreams. It is the perfect setting for the Land Speed Record. It is also the perfect setting for failure.

SHOT GLASS (Vienna, 1887)

November 3, 2008

Two central Europeans are firing a gun into a bottle, breaking glass and making sparks as the bullet rips through a charged glass coil. A flash of light illuminates the projectile as it hurtles through space.

Ernst Mach is examining a photograph of a bullet in flight. His brow is furrowed. In the frame is a bunch of scrunched up air, gathering around the leading edge of a bullet.

He is exploring the notion of the vicious severity of war wounds as a function of compressed air pummeling the flesh, as opposed to the projectile itself. He is holding a visualization, empirical proof, of what would later determine to be a sound wave.

Using a kind of redundancy and “absolute proof” as his methodology, Ernst Mach figures out that the terrifying crack and echo from a gunshot is because the bullet is traveling faster than the speed of sound.

“Mach Numbers” enter the field of physics as a form of measure. The concept of “supersonic” enters the idiom of psychology. The sound of air is terrifying…

This shock wave became anthropomorphosized by fighter pilots in the 1940s, as they danced and died with the shock wave that forms at the Speed of Sound. The fighter pilots considered this waveform to be a Demon. (Read The Right Stuff for a 400-plus page explanation of this…)

Mach’s Demon is a very lithe contortionist. He is made of air molecules that can warp, tear, compress and fan out when pummeled by a body in motion passing through the transonic region.


November 3, 2008

Ernst Mach insists that acceleration can be defined as only relative to the distant stars… Albert Einstein hammers out equations for this, and thus explains gravity in his General Theory of Relativity.

Mach has heard that he is being hailed as a predecessor to Relativity. He is not pleased.

Vienna 1912. Einstein and Mach meet to address the atom as a “visualizing symbol.” Mach not only refuses to accept the existence of atoms, he thinks a lot of Relativity is bullshit and he tells Einstein so.

The human mind has its own inertia, I reckon. Even the human mind that developed Universal Laws about Inertia.

According to Grolier’s, Mach “was suspicious of any thought (including scientific hypotheses) that was incapable of being reduced to direct observation…” This leads us to the Cosmological Battle between Inertia (Mach’s Principle) and Gravitation (Einstein’s General Relativity); as far as Special Relativity goes, Einstein never did the math to Mach’s satisfaction… The Mach Theorem of Inertia not only disagrees with Newton’s notion of absolute time and space, but it also challenged Einstein to explain what was affecting the orbit and velocity of both celestial bodies and photons… Einstein proves to be more or less right with General Relativity… Mach feels that space is empty (his fallacy), while Einstein alludes to gravitational forces (later shown to be “dark matter”)… Unfortunately, empirically speaking, by that time Mach croaks… Forthwith Einstein coaches the scientific community from the sidelines on the best way to bomb the shit out of the Axis Powers. Again, from Grolier’s, “Mach died in the very year that Einstein published his major paper on general relativity; neither of these two giant intellects was ever fully in accord with the other.”


November 3, 2008

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.