Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Chain Reaction: A Dramatic Demonstration

After World War II, the atomic bomb—the awesome and awful weapon that had ended the war— had a lot of people's attention and interest. How did it work? Enrico Fermi had said in an interview that the secret of the bomb could be stated in two words, "exponential function." The atomic bomb provided only one example of exponential functions in operation. They seemed ubiquitous throughout nature, including the world of human affairs.

Indeed, as readers of the previous blogposts here on time-binding know, Korzybski had proposed in 1921 that time-binding too, involved an exponential function. By 1947 mousetrap models of the chain reaction in an 'atomic bomb' began to get written about in journals and even the popular media. Korzybski read about the "Atomic Mousetraps" in Science News and decided that he had to have one in his seminars to demonstrate this important notion of chain reactions. For him it wasn't sufficient to explain 'concepts' like this, they had to be seen, heard and felt to 'get under the skin' of his students.

The demonstration he used in his 1948-1949 Winter Intensive seminar involved an array of mousetraps set up in a large box with a glass front for viewing and a closed top (for protection) with a hole in it. The traps were set and arranged on the floor of the box in columns of about 5 traps arranged in cross-rows of 10 or so in close proximity. Two hard candies, representing 'neutrons' had been balanced on the spring of each trap. Then Ralph Hamilton, Korzybski's assistant at the time, dropped another single 'neutron' candy (raspberry flavored, by the way) through the hole in the top of the box to trigger one trap below, which sent its two 'neutrons' flying through the air. Each one set off another two neutrons, and so on. Within a few seconds the whole 'bomb' of about 50 mousetrap 'atoms' had exploded with dramatic results.

The YouTube video below shows a demonstration which, although it uses single pingpong balls, will give you a pretty good feel for what Korzybski's seminar students might have seen.

Exponential Function Visualized.

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