Posts Tagged ‘Newton’


November 3, 2008

Newton figured that space and time are absolute. They ain’t. Had he done his calculus at the Bonneville Salt Flats, he might have come to a different conclusion.

Time. He might have asked the Donner Party as they ran into trouble crossing the salt lake how many minutes were in an hour, how many hours were in a day and how many days were in a week. The Donner Party were misled and bamboozled by a slick-as-owlshit map seller who sugar-coated the distance across the tremendous and treacherous lake bed. They didn’t have to resort to cannibalism until they reached the Sierra Nevada Mountains, but the interminable delays as they negotiated their way across the sweltering and sodden salt flat delayed their arrival until wintertime and an unforgiving blizzard.

Space. From where the Donner Party crossed the salts of Bonneville to where Art Arfons skimmed across the salt like a stone at 600 mph, the earth’s surface bends like the whistle on a locomotive as it makes it way closer to the station.

The bending of space and time is a crucial aspect of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, as gravity warps, compresses and expands spacetime itself. Time slows down and time speeds up. Synchronized watches give conflicting readings from different points in the solar system. Watches orbiting the globe maintain a different reading than those static on planet earth.

All of this wisdom is burned inexorably into the Salt from millenniums of harsh lessons. Human experiments are redundant. Tautological.

On a human level, spacetime is not so much gravitational, as it is physiological: just ask Art Arfons how time stood still when he was bouncing across the Salt Flats in 1965 at over 600 mph, as he tried to re-take the Land Speed Record from Craig Breedlove. Art crashed when a wheel spindle broke, launching the car in the air for a distance of nearly two football fields, before it touched down and continued caroming across the desert. As the second ticked off while he was in the air for those 527 feet, time was stretched like a rubber band in suspended animation, then snapped back to nothing at all.

Aristotle, Galileo, Newton, Einstein, and others have all argued about the state of Space and whether or not Space itself is a body in motion. Ernst Mach was critical of Newton’s definitions of time and space as absolute. He denounced the theory of absolute space as “a pure thought-thing which can not be pointed to in experience.”

Mach’s rebuttal of Newton was part of his research investigating Doppler’s then controversial law which described the relationship between perceived frequency of sound and light and the motion of the observer relative to that source. Einstein owed much to this research.

Sound and light bend depending on the velocity and proximity of the source. Like the Earth turning its back on the Sun. Like a train heading toward a station. Or a motorcar approaching the speed of a bullet on the desert floor.

The cosmos and the desert have their own empiricism, and they really don’t care if this knowledge is something humanity can or cannot grasp. Regardless, it will dispense harsh lessons in physics and relativity to those who dare challenge the cosmos’ sense of superiority. “I don’t remember nothing until they tried to get me out of the wreckage,” Arfons says.


PICK YOUR PART (Southern California, 1999)

November 3, 2008

“One day I found myself sitting in a physics class trying to understand how to calculate the instantaneous acceleration of some particle inside the nucleus of the atom, which particle may or may not even exist, and I didn’t even care if it existed or not because all this horsefeathers had nothing to do with engines or anything else that I cared about even in the slightest, teensy bit.” — EJ Potter, MICHIGAN MADMAN.

“Just to know that you were going to a hard top track was a thought that acted like a supercharger on the jets of that mental carburetor called the brain. But this nuclear-physics jazz was — well — not exactly for the birds, but certainly for the new type of square that the scientific age was producing. The old-type atom buster was a kind of beatnik who neglected the barbershop and dribbled shreds of pipe tobacco into his beard. The new model was apt to have a clean crew cut over an Ivy League lab jacket…” — Philip Harkins, The Day of the Drag Race, 1960.

BZ catches me as I am out the door. It’s a Friday in the second week in March and my quest for information on something known as Infinity is taking me to Bakersfield to interview an old timer known as “the Goat.”

In a rare twist of meteorology, it is actually cooler there than it is in L.A. where Santa Ana winds blow hot and caustic like some sort of cosmic halitosis and the masses of people — including my pal BZ — are stupefied by the preternaturally scorching heat and are acting strange as vaporlock.

He is calling from a pay phone on the corner of Tuxford and Glenoaks Boulevard, down the street from the gates of the Pick Your Part in Pacoima where he has just been fired. They cut him a check during lunch and sent him home. He tells me he is in no mood to talk about his former job.

“So tell me about Bakersfield and this search for Infinity.” He exhales into the tinny mouthpiece. I can hear the sweat on his forehead.

Bradford Ramon Zukovic — BZ to his friends — is the son of Slavic emigres (“Where Nicky Tesla was born,” he told me) and has an uncommon command of advanced mathematics as well as an atavistic appreciation of Americana, most specifically its coefficients of automotive culture and technological enthusiasm… His math theory is a little more together than his sartorial sense, in that his belt makes it through all the loops, but there is something off about the way his pants fit. Before he worked at a junkyard, he was a science teacher at a junior college in Glendale, whereupon he seamlessly insinuated his own ideas about bleeding edge theoretical physics on his English As A Second Language class, mixing it in with classic Newtonian theory.

(I thought this was slick. His employers disagreed apparently…)

He abhorred the dumbing down of the curriculum at Glendale Community College. Because of his thorough dissatisfaction with the feel-good and self-helpish tone of contemporary academia that ignored Classic Theory in any discipline (the 3 r’s as well as science), BZ ended up working a forklift at the junkyard in Pacoima. This career switch came down after vehement opposition from faculty and administration. There would be no more of his foisting of nanotech and quantum mechanics to unsuspecting English-as-a-second-language types who just wanted to get through enough General Ed to score a job behind some cosmetic counter at the Galleria in Eagle Rock…

“The search begins in Bakersfield at the US Fuel and Gas Championships. ‘The Smokers Meet.’ The drag strip is out in the orange groves just north of Bakersfield.”

I then tell BZ that the Goat had promised to give me the skinny on Glen Leasher, the driver for the Infinity jet car, an ill-fated (and mostly forgotten) LSR project that had crashed with tragic consequences at Bonneville in 1962. (Leasher had driven a AA/Fuel Dragster for the Goat months before his ill-fated Land Speed Record attempt; I had tried interviewing the Goat over the phone, calling him at his speed shop in San Francisco, but this proved futile as he was an octogenarian drag racer and, by extension, rather hard of hearing. Even with all the noise, I decided it would just be easier to just yell into the old man’s hearing aid at the drag strip…)

Just as an automated operator interrupts to tell him his allocated time is up, BZ asks me to pick him up by the taco truck on Glenoaks. Over the tremolo effect of more nickels being plunked into the coin slot, I say I’m on my way.

Once he gets in the car he opens up and starts talking about his latest former day job, telling me that the junkyard had let him go for reasons of subterfuge, insubordination and malingering, as he was caught having parked his forks behind the shade of a towering pile of crushed Gremlins and Pacers in the American Motors section of the scrapyard. He tells me that when he should have been loading a 1950s luxury car onto the piledriver, the boss man found him reading a book about a drag racer who changes careers and becomes a wrench on an atom smasher (“The Day of the Drag Race”) instead.

“Check this out,” he says, pointing to the dog-eared hardcover that got him fired. “I found it in a dumpster outside the library at Glendale Community College.”

“My god, they were throwing that away?” I am appalled. “Is every vestige of hot rodding culture going to be trashed in some sort of do-gooder save-the-planet purge?”

“Probably. You should read this book sometime before they do. It proves that even in 1960 some folks knew that the real r&d was going down in atom smashers and not at the drag strip.”

This re-ignited an ongoing argument between the two of us as to what was a cooler proving ground: Particle accelerators or the drag strip.

“Atom smashing. Sounds like great work…. if you can get a government grant. Which not even you can get nowadays, eh?”

He ignores my question about government grants for a minute or two. Perhaps he was absorbed in a moment of self-awareness, brutally cognizant of how remote the possibilities are of ever milking the teats of Uncle Sam when one is wearing an oil-stained blue jumpsuit, slurping on an horchata and carrying a sackful of greasy tacos while riding shotgun in a ‘71 Grand Prix that needed the upholstery replaced. He processes these thoughts and begins dealing with them tangentially…

“That’s the great paradox, isn’t it?” he deduces. “If books like The Day of the Drag Race were part of the curriculum on even a Junior College level and were to show kids that hot rodding can hone one’s math and science skills — or better still that the real hot rodding is going on at the speed of light, then I’d be in a white coat right now trying to find out what happened to the particles of anti-gravity that were necessary to keep the galaxies from collapsing on themselves moments after the Creation of this Universe…”

“There is more than one kind of white coat.”

“Look, if our government has one purpose, it is to cut checks to the people who are trying to separate the bay leaves from the broth in the great cosmic, primordial soup.”

We eat ceviche and lengua tacos and wash them down with horchata while I drive. We have ample time to discuss both the cosmos and Infinity before we got to the drag strip in Bakersfield; as much as anything, however, we discuss the philosophical and utilitarian ramifications of working at a scrapyard. I tell him that I wondered how he had been able to live with himself while under the employ of Pick Your Part, and that crushing abandoned and surplus automobiles was beneath his dignity, particularly when it means the destruction of irreplaceable gas guzzlers of yore. I say this was, karmically speaking, somewhere between a book burning and replenishing the poison at a gas chamber at Dachau. If he hadn’t been fired and had continued “… ‘just following orders,’ if you will,” someday the vehicle he carted to its demise might be the very ‘71 Grand Prix that he was cruising in right now, confiscated by agents of the Air Quality Management Department and crushed to neutrinos, as a symbol of profligacy and as an incorrigible gross polluter.

“You know there is a government program to destroy these things so an oil company can get particle emission credits,” I tell him. “They pay folks 500 bucks to get non-operational beaters off of their front lawn, figure how much carbon dioxide the vehicle would have contributed to the smog theoretically, and then allow the oil company that much more leeway with pollution from their refineries. ‘Remove the filters and stoke the furnace.’ Pardon the pun, but it’s an utter shell game.”

BZ agrees. “It’s a bureaucratic rimjob.”

The casualty in this bureaucratic flimflam was the American muscle car. He tells me of the litany of endangered classic luxury and muscle cars that he had recently carted that much closer to their ultimate extinction: A ‘59 Chrysler Imperial. A 1960 Dodge Polara. Desoto Adventurers. A ‘62 F-85 Cutlass. Buick LeSabres. Pontiac Bonnevilles. A ‘58 Nash Ambassador. A 1950 Olds Futuramic 98 with a whirlaway hydra-matic drive.

The scrapyard was a museum, he says, and some of these forgotten automobiles were pieces of sculpture. To relegate these arch, epic pieces of American iron to an industrial-strength compacter was an abomination against preservation and decency…

“No matter how decrepit the vehicle, the thought of their imminent destruction always made me well up.”

I just listen. I think he mistook my silence as some kind of rush to judgment…

“Look, besides the fact that I needed the cash, I took the job to get next to the contours of those elegant machines, okay?” He pauses for a second, searching for the right phrase. “There is a certain existential beauty in their corrugation and decay as they rust and rot in the excruciating heat of a summer in the forgotten wastelands of the San Fernando Valley. Everything is temporary. Even triumphs of engineering and art. Even triumphs of the intellect.” He looks out the open window at the freeway offramp where the LAPD once beat the living chicken livers out of Rodney King, tosses out his straw and plastic lid and then takes a last drink from the dregs of his horchata, which leaves a crescent rice milk moustache on his upper lip.

We ride in silence for awhile…

“So what happened today?” I finally ask, and then turned my head, my gaze distracted by roller coasters as we motor past an amusement park in Valencia. “What finally made you snap?”

“They told me to load up a trashed ‘57 Pontiac Star Chief on to my forks and take it out to get crushed. I couldn’t. The tailfins alone were entirely too majestic — I just refused to be an accessory to its destruction. So I hid it out by the Pacers and Gremlins in the AMC section. Nobody goes there except the — and when I say this, I mean it with respect — the kookiest of car collectors. You know the type: the ones who think the push buttons for the transmission were a neat idea. Lupe Garou. Phhewwww,” he whistles and then pointed his forefinger at his noggin and rotated it counterclockwise.

“So while I was kicking back, one of the other fork operators saw the tailfins through the glass bubble of a Pacer and reported it to the dispatcher.” He exhaled and sighed. “Christ, they were pissed off, yelling at me in both Spanish and English. I told them to fuck off and that this was Pacoima, not Nuremberg.”

“At least you got fired.”


November 2, 2008

The phone call comes from Shell Oil’s media power center in West Los Angeles. It is the day after Labor Day, 1997. The voice on the other end, an oil company’s flak who apparently had drawn Craig Breedlove as his assignment, is clueing me in as to how, beginning tomorrow and after a year long hiatus following the 675 mph mishap, the speed trials are back on for the Spirit of America at the parched alkali of Black Rock, Nevada. It is official, the first proper supersonic Land Speed Record attempts are a green light. I am to get credentialed tomorrow at a hotel in Reno, NV, whereupon Craig Breedlove will rendezvous with the press and lead a caravan out to the desert like some latter-day man-machine Mohammed. At the press conference he will explain the modifications and improvements administered to a land speed machine that had become unstable and crashed at transonic speeds.

In the days following Breedlove’s 1996 near-calamitous daredevil act – near the speed clocks, Breedlove got out of the groove and began bicycling his sleek J79 jet engine-powered manned missile like a circus act, the 5-wheeled vehicle riding on the front tire and one rear wheel rolling and yawing off course until it made an abrupt right hand turn and was aimed at some Snowbird-types in an RV (by the grace of the All-Knowing, by a whisker had Breedlove missed torpedoing these senior citizen motorheads who had hoped to witness history, not aware that unwittingly they had almost become new members of the Good Sam’s Club in the Sky) – the more dubious members of the motorsports press had surmised that Breedlove’s speed was closer to 475 mph.

“Performance incentive clauses” was the phrase bandied about by these cynics, in reference to the reality that Craig would need beaucoup greenbacks from his sponsors to repair his exotic race car. The only confirmation of the actual speed of the vehicle as it became unstable came from the Spirit of America itself. (Breedlove showed data from the run which corroborated his speed, apparently.)

Whether the streamliner was traveling at 475 mph or 675 mph was rather moot; the Spirit of America had failed to reach its objective of reclaiming the Land Speed Record from the clutches of the British in general and Richard Noble, Order of the British Empire in specific. The recent improvements to the race car’s contour promised to render ‘er even sleeker than last year’s model, a design which already resembled an arrow from the quill of the Pauites.

There were also conflicting reports about whether Craig intends to crack the sound barrier or if his intent is to get the car up to trans- and sub-sonic speeds, and then remove himself out of the hot seat, install a remote controlled drone system and then go supersonic.

In other words, there was a chance that when the Spirit of America went Mach 1, it may not have a driver.

To get the skinny, the publicist tells me, I have to be at the Reno press conference by noon tomorrow. The flak kindly asks me to be sure to include references to Shell Oil in the article on Breedlove I was to pen for HOT ROD Magazine. I assume he means in relation to its continued patronage of Breedlove’s increasingly-streamlined fuselage, a relation that dated back to 1962, and not its recent alleged complicity in the political assassination of Ken Saro Wiwa and genocide in Nigeria, when some of the locals were less than happy with what they considered exploitation… Ultimately, notions of tyranny and subterfuge in the Third World are now dormant in my mind. The important thing is that the Grunions are Go! The Land Speed Record is about to be raised…

The hour is late… I have just enough time for loading a camera bag with lenses and a half dozen plastic canisters of Ilford, cramming some clothing and toiletries into a shoulder bag, brewing up a thermos of Cafe Bustello, jumping in the Batmobile so’s to make time to the Burbank Airport, throw a credit card down on an airline counter and catch a plane to Reno.

Because of the haste and my appearance, I would fit the profile of a terrorist: unshaven, jittery, amped on caffeine, paying with a credit card and demanding to be put on an airplane that was just about to taxi… but that routine would be repeated often during the next six weeks or so and was part and parcel of chasing the Land Speed Record, I would find out that Richard Noble’s adage about “Going fast is slow business,” is not accurate: it is slow business with a co-efficient of chasing airplanes.

My journey would only take a few hours. In Newtonian terms, the Land Speed bunch had taken an eternity to arrive at this moment; in four-dimensional respects, an infinity.


November 2, 2008

I am waiting to make a phone call to the editor of HOT ROD Magazine. I wait outside the booth as Richard Noble is fumbling for the proper change to dial out, and I notice all he can summon is lint and some British coins.

Here he is, Richard Noble, the fastest man on the planet, desperately trying to make lodging arrangements in the middle of the American Outback, the weight of an entire LSR operation on his shoulders. The SSC’ers got no rooms and their leader can’t even make a fucking phone call.

The Brits are boycotting that turncoat opportunist Bruno. They adjourn to the bar next door, “Bev’s Miners’ Club,” and discuss Plan B. After enjoining Bev the barkeep to “Give us a fag, wouldya’ love?” (Loosely translated, “I’d like to purchase a package of cigarettes”), the affable Brits begin making friends with the locals, particularly Bev.

So picture this: Richard Noble and his lads (twenty-odd clamoring Brits clad in matching RAF-khaki) are hoisting Coors in a dusty, desert Dew-Do-Drop-Inn (this about as bizarre as it gets, in my book) when one of Noble’s crew members shushes the entire bar. The local teevee news is reporting on that morning’s press conference (“Going 700 mph does not interest us. We are here to go Mach 1”) at the casino in Reno. Suddenly the videotape cuts to the chipper studio humanoid broadcaster who closes the report with this coda, “Noble and his team are taking Saturday off in observance of Princess Di’s funeral.”

Simultaneously Richard Noble, OBE does a “say wot??” double take while his overworked and underpaid entourage cheer and Bev pours more drinks and opens more cans of beer.

They didn’t get the day off. Nor did they care, really. All of which underscores this question: What is it about Noble that inspires his troops, his lads to persevere in high-desert heat to erect a portable self-contained military-industrial complex that meets the criteria for the digital era’s standard for data gathering, all on a dry lake bed that time forgot?

(The massive amounts of hardware assembled by the SSC to facilitate the penetration of this phantom waveform amounted to nothing short of a hi-tech paramilitary invasion of a forgotten lake bed that – excepting for the war games and impromptu fighter plane dogfights staged sporadically by the military back in WW II and the alterno-tech paganism of the annual Burning Man Festival – had more or less been bypassed by the techno-industrial revolution of the 20th Century and had never seen electricity, much less microwave satellite uplinks, portable airsheltas, rescue vehicles, hundreds of channels of real time telemetry and supersonic motorcars.)

The answer is not explainable by the notion of “technological enthusiasm,” a phrase that has recently come to explain everything from hot rodding to the Apollo moonshot. The answer is deeper, more atavistic and completely primeval. The answer has roots which extend into the quintessence of matter: The universe is expanding. By extrapolation, consciousness is expanding, constantly encroaching into realms of the unknown. The technological enthusiast must go THERE, the technological enthusiast will devour and outmaneuver whatever is in his or her way: Pauites, the laws of aerodynamics, Newtonian physics, whatever.

Thus you have some of the finest minds of our lifetime sleeping on other people’s couches, on their hands and knees picking up pebbles off the desert floor (to keep them from getting Hoover’d into the jet engines intake), all so they can have their moonshot.