Singularity, In a Single Thought

Science fiction blends into scientific thought experiment with explosive results (adapted from the original piece):

The Fiendish Contraption

Terence Tao mused about the possibility that water could spontaneously explode. A widely used set of equations describes the behavior of fluids like water, but there seemed to be nothing in those equations that prevents a wayward eddy from suddenly turning in on itself, tightening into an angry gyre, until the density of the energy at its core becomes infinite: a catastrophic “singularity.” Someone tossing a penny into the fountain or skipping a stone at the beach could apparently set off a chain reaction that would take out Southern California.

It’s a decades-­old conundrum, and Tao has recently constructed a solution — one part fanciful, one part outright absurd, like some lost passage from “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.”

At first, his fellow scientists were skeptical, but there was also early momentum. Schoolmate and colleague, Ben Green of Oxford, wrote: “Someone awfully clever could construct a machine out of pure water.” Later that same year in the Journal of the American Mathematical Society (JAMS), longtime collaborator and close friend Markus Keel continued: “It would be built not of rods and gears but from a pattern of interacting currents. Mathematically, there is nothing to prevent such a fiendish contraption from operating.” Time soon edified the youthful collaborators working on a theory that would change everything.

A Most Masterful Proof

As he talked, Tao carved shapes in the air with his hands, like a magician. Picking up the thought experiment begun by Keel: “Now imagine that this machine were able to make a smaller, faster copy of itself, which could then make another, and so on, until one has infinite speed in a tiny space and blows up!”, he said, laughing. “It means that water can, in fact, explode.”

Tao’s hands pause in midair. “Or maybe, just maybe, instead of exploding, the machine could be used to help us escape.” The 40-year old mathematics genius looked toward the setting sun outside his office, a faint hint of melancholy overshadowing his usually boyish tone.

By creating the world’s first functioning prototype of such a “fiendish contraption” — although it too was destroyed during its first successful use — Tao has also solved the Navier-­Stokes global regularity problem. That problem had become, since it emerged more than a century ago, one of the most important in all of mathematics.

New Horizons

It began as a mere thought experiment, of the sort that Einstein used to develop the theory of special relativity. Now, looking toward a lightning-laced squall of heavy clouds rumbling toward the setting Spring sun, Terence Tao hopes a revelation that rivals the discovery of nuclear power will be used for good, not unspeakable evil.

At a desk by the window, papers lying in drifts at the margins, the phone rang.

Read the article here (click here).


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