Zeno's Stump (Shallow Thoughts)

Akkana's Musings on Open Source, Science, and Nature.

Tue, 07 Jun 2005

Zeno's Stump

A house down the street just sold. It had an interesting large tree in the front yard, some sort of yucca: an odd looking desert tree with several thick branching trunks, spiky bayonet leaves and sometimes big clumps of white flowers.

The new owners apparently didn't like the stark desert tree. No sooner had the For Sale signs come down than a crew was at work with chainsaws.

The upper parts of the trunks, and all the foliage, were quickly cut off and tossed in the street. Then the real chainsaw games began.

It turns out that the trunks of this tree (at least four trunks, connected at the base) are each quite a bit larger in diameter than a chainsaw's blade. Even going from both sides, a chainsaw can't really cut through them.

It's been a couple of weeks since the top bits of the yucca tree got dragged away. Every day, we hear chainsaws in the late morning, and chainsaws again for a while in the afternoon, as workers whittle at the tops and edges of the stump containing the bases of the four trunks. Every time I go by, the stump has gotten a little smaller: a few inches here, a few inches there. Chips and slivers of wood join the pile in the street by the curb. Hand saws and axes sit wedged at strategic places in the stump.

I'm finally seeing Zeno's Paradox in action. You remember Zeno's paradox? You're trying to get from A to B in a finite time: so first you must go half the distance, which also takes a finite time. But to do that, you must first go half that distance; and since you can divide the distances in half infinitely, you can never get to the finishing line, because it would take an infinite number of finite time intervals.

The pile of wood by the curb gets larger every time I look.

And yet ... somehow Zeno's Stump doesn't look any smaller.

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