Wednesday, December 29, 2010

How Now, Round Cow

[Note:  It has been maintained that Origen held that “the resurrected body will be spherical”. Henry Chadwick, The Early Church (1993), p. 106]


It is an old joke and a good one, retold here with some improvements.

~ ~ ~

United General Dairy wished to enhance milk production, so they called in an engineer, a physicist, and a mathematician.

The Engineer said, “No problem. Gimme a week.”
Good as his word, he showed up a week later  with an elaborate 3-D CAD prototype of an Advanced Magnetic Milk Extractor, consisting of a reverse rotor hardwired to an alternator (see diagram 12-c) routing through an ANSI-standard bolometric squinch, relying on either hex-nut variable findipulators, or (depending on parts availability) …
It was all very clever, but the humble dairymen couldn’t figure out how to work the thing, and figured they’d spend all their time in tech support instead of milking cows, which is what they liked to do.  So they sent the engineer on his way.

The physicist frowned, pondered a bit, then said:  “Doable. Fund me for a month.”
Thirty days later he returned, visibly pleased with himself.  “This is so much more elegant than what that engineer came up with.  A simple cylinder, 500 miles long.  Behold, gentlemen:  The Relativistic Linear Cow Accelerator!  Insert cow at one end, she emerges at the other, with (provably) every last lactic atom extracted, and placed into appropriate containers.”

Physicist launches a cow

Management was impressed, but inquired as to the cost.
“Ohh,” said the physicist with an airy wave of his hand. “A billion, a trillion, something in that range.  Ask Congress.”
Calculating that a pint of milk would have to retail at over a million dollars, management bade the physicist adieu, and turned to the mathematician.

The mathematician, however, did not turn to them.  He was… thinking about something.
Eventually they managed to snag his attention, and explained the problem.  The mathematician slowly nodded.  “It’s really a most intriguing problem… with ramifications in unexpected directions…. Allow me a year’s sabbatical, and I might have something for you.”
Management shrugged, and basically forgot all about him, until, at the stroke of noon, one year later to the day, the mathematician burst in, his moon-face beaming.
“Gentlemen, I have it.  Consider a spherical cow….”

* * *

As with many a good joke – those that make you smile instead of smirk or snicker – there is a theological dimension to this. 
Just what it is, is difficult to put into words – unless you are Chesterton, for whom it was (so literally) child’s play; and who put it thus:

            I find that most round things are nice,
            Particularly Eternity and a baby.

This says it all, but a footnote for mortals.  For you see, the thing about spherical cows is, they are so  ----- cowishly round, so… profoundly round, so – so round all about:  yea,
take them from this end     or take them from that,
they are
         round all around. …..

And this, indeed, is worth considering,
well merits our contemplation,
and our meditation,
through many an eternity afternoon …. 


Bonus poem:  Symmetry viewed by a mooncalf  (Rilke):

Ach was ist das für ein schöner Ball !
Rot und rund wie ein Überall.
Gut, dass ihr ihn erschuft.
Ob der wohl kommt wenn man ruft?


Good heavens... I Googled "how now round cow", which I'd fancied a basically new tweak of the traditional "how now brown cow", just to see if the search engine was updating its indexing of this site -- turns out there are already tons of sites that use this phrase.   Nothing new under the sun.

So:   TWoDrJ still rules the "humble woodchuck" universe, but is at present an also-ran in the lovely rotund world of Round Cows.


William Thurston, Three-Dimensional Geometry and Topology (1997), p. 103:
Just like the circle and the two-sphere, the three-sphere is very round.  But there are some beautiful, classical aspects to its roundness  that are not easy to guess from its lower-dimensional sisters.

The easiest way for a human to visualize the three-sphere is as the one-point compactification of ordinary three-dimensional Euclidean space (basically, you adjoin a point at infinity and define open sets as sets containing this point and with compact complement).   But, the author cautions,
this picture suffers from a loss of symmetry: [this compactification] is not as round as it should be.

 Pleasingly, a Google search on “not as round as it should be” brings up the Thurston quote as the very first hit, ahead several pages of more humdrum physical uses.


Here is an actual unretouched photograph of a Spherical Cow:

Let the welkin resound with the rotundity of round!
Here you can behold a genuine round square in captivity.

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