[Humanist] 24.107 cartoon physics

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Sun Jun 13 09:32:02 CEST 2010

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 24, No. 107.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

Date: Sun, 13 Jun 2010 08:14:49 +0100
From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
Subject: cartoon physics

For some years I have been now and again pursuing the origins of a
childhood memory of a cartoon in which a figure runs or walks off a
cliff, then keeps on walking until the fatal moment when he (invariably
in memory) notices where he is and falls suddenly straight down. A
remark in a television series, about being "a Wile E. Coyote", led me to
the character in question, and so to the very helpful Wikipedia entry on
Coyote, which refers to "cartoon physics" and to Stephen Gould's
article, "Looney Tuniverse: Ther is a crazy king of physics at work in
the world of cartoons", New Scientist 1905, 25 December 1993, p. 56.
(This Stephen Gould, by the way, is a financial training consultant and
amateur physicist, not the famous American evolutionary biologist.)
Apparently the Law of Cartoon Physics illustrated by Wile E. Coyote is
also exemplified by Daffy Duck, though in a quieter formulation: "Any
body suspended in space will remain in space until made aware of its
situation" ("Cartoon Laws of Physics",  funnies.paco.to/cartoon.html).

I did refer to Wile E. Coyote a few days ago on Humanist but give fuller
reference here to the literature in order to make sure that the deep
insight which this Law contains will be in active circulation among us.
It's rhetorically quite effective to point out that someone who goes
right on thinking and/or saying X when X is clearly, obviously in
contravention of the facts or of reason, or both, belongs in a cartoon
world. I won't say that we encounter such people more than others do,
though I wouldn't be surprised if this turned out to be the case.

But a question. In computer games cartoon physics (and cartoon biology etc)
often obtain -- to give a very simple example, in a simulation of pinball in
which the coefficient of elasticity of the balls and friction are parameters
rather than constants. Something similar obtains, I would suppose, with
digitally generated music, in which anything goes, and so constraints have
to be set by the composer that in musical production using older instruments
are fixed properties of those instruments. Not "virtual reality" in the
mimetic sense but completely open-ended simulation. Has anyone studied this
phenomenon (if that's the right word) and its implications? When is it not
computer art?


Willard McCarty, Professor of Humanities Computing,
King's College London, staff.cch.kcl.ac.uk/~wmccarty/;
Editor, Humanist, www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist;
Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, www.isr-journal.org.

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