The History of Physics

'...simple machines, in themselves basic concepts, that make more complicated machines possible. I think you can name a few. Carter?'

'The wheel?'

'Very good. That was a major accomplishment that revolutionised transportation. Any more?'

'The lever...'


'...inclined plane...'


'That's an application of the wheel, stupid!'

'Very good answers, all,' responded the professor. 'The wheel, especially. We don't know who invented the wheel, but imagine how it revolutionised everything. It's so basic to everything. We even have expressions like, "re-inventing the wheel"...'

'That's okay! As long as you don't take out a patent, right?'

'Oh, Geoffrey! That joke's so old!'

'But try to imagine, again,' the professor went on, 'how many years of unrecorded history humanity lived and worked without the aid of the wheel, dragging things on sticks, carrying no more than could be carried on their back, or on a beast of burden, or...'

'How stupid!'

'But wait,' corrected the professor. 'While it seems to us like such a simple, basic concept, that we can't imagine people not thinking of it, remember, that's only our own vantage point as people who know about it already. If you'd never heard of it, how long would it take for you to think of it? Ask yourself that, and be honest.'


'But it's still hard to imagine.'

'-- not hard to imagine you not ...'

'Shut up!'

'And, think of how many millennia of unrecorded history humanity actually lived through, never having thought of it. Can anyone think of how the wheel may have indirectly contributed to our beginning to record history?'

'I know! Ball point pens!'

'Geoffrey! You're such a ...'

'Rebecca?' said the professor.

'The wheel probably helped to make history worthwhile recording.'

'Very good point.'

'I'm such a what?'

'Forget it.'

'Now,' the professor continued, 'can you think of any inventions made during recorded history that had as profound an impact as the wheel?'

'The printing press?'

'No! Tell me, what?'

'Atomic theory?'

'Lighten up, Geoffrey!'


'All good answers, but...'

'The flong!'

'Very good, Penny,' observed the professor. 'What the wheel was to transportation and other machinery, the flong did for flight.'

'Hey yeah!'

'How did our ancestors ever do without the flong?'

'Precisely what they did do. They imitated nature. The aeroplane, for-instance, was the result of observing birds in flight, and adapting simple concepts we did have, such as the inclined plane -- all without the help of the flong.'

'Inclined plane?'

'-- aerodynamically, I think --'

'So we imitated nature and learned to fly. In one way, quite ingenious, but how about before the invention of the wheel? How did we -- or could we -- imitate nature then?'

'Er -- robot legs?'

'But wouldn't you need wheels and levers for that?'

'Very good point,' said the professor. 'Actually, instead of imitating nature, we used nature. We didn't make legs, but we used those of horses, camels and mules. So after the invention of the wheel, the lever, the inclined plane, etc. etc. we continued to both use and imitate nature. We achieved quite a lot, really, we began to fly, we got people going to the moon, to Mars...'

'What part of nature did rockets imitate? The fart?'


'But wasn't that bad for the environment?'

'Precisely. We just about destroyed ecological balance of the earth, we depleted the earth's fossil fuels just to keep our flongless contraptions airborne; then, with nuclear power we almost...'

'What do you mean "we"? You mean our ignorant ancestors, don't you?'

'I say "we",' reaffirmed the professor, 'because if not for them, there wouldn't be "us" today. Remember, they passed on to us everything they had...'

'-- including the chard remains of Earth --'

'...and remember, we were as ignorant of the flong then, as we were of the wheel much earlier in our history.'

'Yeah, the flong is such a simple concept, I still can't imagine people not thinking of it.'


The Flong -- Part Two

The discovery of the Flong is attributed to Billy Flong, an autistic eight year old who was obsessed with the drawings of M. C. Escher. The picture he was particularly fond of was the one pictured below, now known as Escher's Flong Drawing. No one is sure what the original title of the picture was, nor whether M. C. Escher, himself, was aware that this particular diagram was, in fact, the secret to flight -- or that it was even possible to reproduce in 3D.

Billy Flong, being extremely autistic, had never spoken a word in his life, although he showed signs that he was quite intelligent. One day, he was sitting quietly among a group of adults, looking at his favourite Escher drawing. One of the adults happened to say, in the course of the conversation, that it's impossible for objects to simply fly away.

Just then, Billy Flong uttered his first words: 'It's easy to fly!'

'How?' said one of the incredulous adults.

'Just turn gravity backwards!'

'Just how do you turn gravity backwards?'

'With this,' he said, showing them the picture.

At that point, the adults began trying to explain to Billy that while Escher's drawings look fascinating on paper, they are quite impossible to reproduce in 3D. In characteristic fashion, he tuned them out, and went silent again.

Later the same day, Billy created a 3D model of the Flong, using Lego blocks and plasticine. True to his prediction, it flew. The Flong principle had been there all along in the diagram, hiding behind the illusion of impossibility.

Below is the original drawing by M. C. Escher which includes the Flong diagram:

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