Pie Relativity

Here is an excerpt from Neal Stephenson’s System of the World, volume 3 of the Baroque Cycle. One of the fictional main characters, the natural philosopher Daniel Waterhouse, is in a carriage with Isaac Newton. I found it particularly hilarious, and a good example of how Stephenson mixes humor and scientific history, with some characterization thrown in for good measure. Is it hilarious if you haven’t read the book?

In an apt demonstration of the principle of Relativity, as propounded by Galileo, the platter, and the steaming morsels thereon, remained in the same position vis-a-vis Daniel, and hence were in principle, just as edible, as if he had been seated before, and the pies had been resting upon, a table that was stationary with respect to the fixed stars. This was true despite the fact that the carriage containing Daniel, Isaac Newton, and the pies was banging around London…

Isaac, though better equipped than Daniel or any other man alive to understand Relativity, shewed no interest in his pie–as if being in a state of movement with respect to the planet Earth rendered it somehow Not a Pie. But as far as Daniel was concerned, a pie in a moving frame of reference was no less a pie than one that was sitting still: position and velocity, to him, might be perfectly interesting physical properties, but they had no bearing on, no relationship to those properties that were essential to pie-ness. All that mattered to Daniel were relationships between his, Daniel’s, physical state and that of the pie. If Daniel and Pie were close together both in position and velocity, then pie-eating became a practical, and tempting, possibility. If Pie were far asunder from Daniel or moving at a large relative velocity–e.g., being hurled at his face–then its pie-ness was somehow impaired, at least from the Daniel frame of reference. For the time being, however, these were purely Scholastic hypotheticals. Pie was on his lap and very much a pie, not matter what Isaac might think of it.

…Daniel, as he spoke, had tucked a napkin into his shirt-collar–a flag of surrender, and an unconditional capitulation to the attractions of Pie. Rather than laying down arms, he now picked them up–knife and fork….And he stabbed Pie. (p. 457)

3 Responses to “Pie Relativity”

  1. Kid Charlemagne Says:

    This is one of my favorite quotes from the Baroque Cycle. I love how Stephenson drops this vastly amusing aside right before he drops an absolute bomb on the reader once Daniel and Isaac get to wher they’re going on their carriage ride. It reminds me very much of the Captain Crunch digression in Cryptonimicon, which happens concurrently with a very important plot development.

  2. girldetective Says:

    KC, one of the many things I loved about this trilogy was how funny it was. Now I have to go back and confirm the plot event I think you’re referring to. My husband and I agree that a re-reading of Cryptonomicon is not far in our future.

  3. thalia Says:

    Um, no, not hilarious. Or even very funny. The rather snide English phrase comes to mind - “Too clever by half.” I don’t think I am his kind of reader…