Impossible Objects

Behold a miracle. I'm guessing just about everybody has played with a top at one point in their lives. (What a strange name, a 'top' - another one I should look up the origins for.)

Science is a funny thing. It truly is our new religion, when we dumped God objectivity quickly rushed in to fill the gap, and science as an actual cultural practice is now as hierarchical, prejudiced and blind as religion or druids or any other priesthood has ever been. Of course some have rejected science and replaced objectivity with subjectivity - the whole universe revolves around the little ego in that 1500-odd cubic centimetres of grey matter in their skull. Doesn't change an awful lot, you still end up with a transcendent, inhuman something or other lording it over the rest of us, mediated by the sacred priesthood (even if the priesthood has a membership of one, for the precious dears so enamored with their little ego that they think it shapes all of reality).

Not that I'm anti-science, far from it. I've done lots of it, and got a degree in engineering because I liked it so much. It's actually only when you train and work in science that you see that it's as as much about stupidity and prejudice and pride as anything else. Probably science's biggest failing is that it likes to be almost completely ahistorical, it loses all sense of the history of any of its discoveries because it has an ideology that every new fact that come along sweeps all the previous facts, or at best just builds upon them. All of the drama and ingenuity and practical experimentation that goes into the creation of any discovery is far too messy and disappears from the stories.

But above all else it's science as theology that we need to be rid of. As the only arbiter of truth and existence, where truth is capital T Truth, a transcendental endpoint that science apparently approaches asymptotically, every new discovery getting us just that bit closer to the final revelation. And again with scientists as the priesthood governing the rituals of this access to Truth. With popularisers like Catalyst here on the telly, or any of thousands of other whoa-golly-gosh wide-eyed worship documentaries fawning before this Truth and the priests who bring it to you. Nietzsche saw that the priest is a permanent archetype in our history.

As I've rabbited on about here before, the problem with all of this is that the world isn't some static lump of stuff that has a single, capital T truth. Reality is always a flux, always changing. Chaos reigns, order is rare and in little islands. When science 'discovers' a truth the religious metaphors of revelation should be dumped and the actual practical activity of constructing a local phenomenon should be put in its place. Everything, even science, is only ever relatively true, within the strict and exact conditions of the work you're doing. This was Einstein's major insight, that it made no sense to talk about transcendent truth, that every time you needed to specify what instruments you were using - what clocks, rulers etc. And yet the same twats who now eulogise Einstein completely missed this, and we continue to get theological drivel about the revelation of truth. As another giant of science Werner Heisenberg said:

What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.


Natural science does not simply describe and explain nature; it is part of the interplay between nature and ourselves.

But back to the top. The thing about tops is that they exhibit behaviours that many see as 'theoretically' impossible. (As Steve Keen always beautifully says about economics as a science, 'economic reform' is always a process of stripping everything out of reality that doesn't match some theory. Similarly in science when something happens that the theory can't explain, it's time to ditch the theory.)

A top is, all at the same time:

  • stable
  • unstable
  • moving
  • not moving
  • in equilibrium
  • not in equilibrium.
So it's an impossible object. And yet there it is, in a kid's playroom. A toy, and singlehandedly it crashes the entire edifice of traditional Western science. Just like the famous "three body problem", meaning any sort of meaningful understanding of how more than two objects or bodies interact, which has eluded explanation by the supposedly finest minds of the last four or five centuries, or more. And yet three or more bodies actually do interact, all the time, without any fuss at all.

Some scientists, like the chaos and non-equilibrium theorists, take this sort of stuff seriously, but because they're not part of that great theological tradition of smoting all and sundry with big-T Truth, they're hardy known at all. The world is full of wonders, the older I get the more I see them. And they're very rarely in scientific journals.


  1. Nick, I like your list of the qualities of a top:
    not moving
    in equilibrium
    not in equilibrium

    In a way, it reminds me of the intent behind a Wallace Stevens poem. A thing or idea may be one or many things at the same time. We need this sense of playfulness in relation to "meaning". So many dead-ends and blockages and problems in life are caused by people identifying body and soul with some fixed notion as to what is right and what is wrong. Just conflicting egos seeking affirmation and power.

  2. Hi Peter

    Yes. The most simple way I've seen these ideas expressed is that life isn't about either/or, it's about 'and'. Always and.


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