Perpetual motion machines
Bhāskara II was a smart man. He has been called the greatest mathematician of medieval India. Also known as Bhāskarāchārya, he reached an understanding of number systems and solved equations that was several centuries ahead of European mathematical knowledge. He understood about zero and negative numbers, quadratic equations, spherical trigonometry, astronomy, cosmography and geography. His works represent the peak of mathematical and astronomical knowledge in the 12th century.
He also had an idea for a machine that once in motion would go on forever. This machine, known as Bhāskara's wheel, would have curved spokes filled with mercury. As the wheel spun, the mercury would flow to the other side of the wheel, over balancing it and keeping the wheel spinning.
We don’t know if he believed that such a machine was physically possible or whether it was an interesting mathematical conundrum, an intellectual challenge, but we do know that perpetual motion machines are impossible. The laws of thermodynamics tell us that.
It’s a nice idea, isn’t it. Getting more out than you put in.
Really, a perpetual motion machine is an attempt to break unbreakable rules. In a way, it’s a test of the system. Any rule that can be broken is one that has been arbitrarily applied. Someone made it up. A rule that can’t be broken is a fundamental system rule. How can we know which are which unless we test them?
This is what our modern software technologies do. It’s what we expect of them. They try to find ways of breaking the rules to get more out than we put in.
If you’d searched the web in 1992, you would have had to use Aliweb, the first ever search engine developed by Martijn Koster at Nexor. Today, you’d probably use Google. You’d get a hundred million search results in less than a second. That’s the promise of the magic data machine of search. It’ll give us all the answers, if we give it all our data. It doesn’t mention the cost. It doesn’t mention the privacy issues, and the influence it has on people’s opinions, and the shaping of our view of history, and the shaping of the future.
If you’d bought one bitcoin in April 2011 you would have paid $1. In November 2021, when bitcoin was at its record high, it would have been worth $69,044. Today, if you’d managed to avoid investing in a scam or being hacked, that bitcoin would be worth $16,644. That’s the promise of the magic money machine of cryptocurrencies. It’ll make us rich, if we give it all our money. It doesn’t mention the cost. It doesn’t mention the crashes, and the hacks, and the carbon emissions, and the people who lost their life savings.
All modern software technology promises it can break the rules. It promises we’ll get more out than we put in. That’s the false promise of the perpetual motion machine, a promise that an impossibility can be overcome. But, even though we know these things are impossible, we still keep trying to do them.
Bhāskarāchārya, means Bhāskara the teacher. If his perpetual motion machine taught us anything, it should be that we can’t get out more than we put in.