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Circles and Momentum

I had not come across this graphic from swyx until recently:

Graphic made by @swyx showing how a pendulum looks back and forth in 2d, but in 3d its path looks like a switchback.

I like this reminder.

I know for me, it’s often too easy to slip into a kind of cynicism that only sees endless stationary circles rather than ones with directional momentum.

It reminds me of the visualizations of the solar system I saw growing up which depict a stationary sun in the middle of the circling planets. (Image stolen from Popular Mechanics.)

Illustration of the solar system with the sun at the center and the planets orbiting it with their orbit paths denoted by lines.

While helpful, this visualization is also deceiving. It’s a fixed graphic that fails to accurately portray the motion of celestial bodies across all the dimensions of space and time.

It can leave you with the impression that our solar system is just sitting there, floating in space, with the sun at the center and the planets circling.

And that’s how building stuff on the web can feel sometimes — like we’re all just floating there, going in circles. The advice on how to build a website being like Mercury’s orbit around the sun: constantly changing yet only ever circling back to the same spot again and again.

Illustration of the solar system with the sun at the center and the planets orbiting it with their orbit paths denoted by lines. The orbit of mercury is highlighted with a red overlay with the text 'advice on how to build a web site' overlaid on top.

But, as Shawn suggests in his graphic, perhaps that’s not quite accurate.

Those static images of our solar system fail to visualize the momentum of our solar system, the sun flying through space with the planets in tow:

Anitmated gif of the sun flying through 3d space with the planets circling it.

Or, perhaps to be more accurate:[1]

Anitmated gif of the sun moving through 3d space with the planets circling it on a specific axis.

Perhaps my own takes on technology often fail to notice the directional momentum of what appears to be a stationary, circular path.

Granted, perhaps the directional momentum isn’t always pointed the right way — but the we’ll get there.

Sometimes your path looks exactly like circle, from point A back to point A. But when your path returns to point A, you are not the same person as when you started — and so, from that perspective, neither is point A. To paraphrase T.S. Elliot, the end of our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.

I’m going to try and be more mindful of noticing the directional momentum of seemingly circular paths.

  1. Apparently, the first graphic came from a viral video which was called out for itself not being totally accurate, though it’s close enough for my purposes here of depicting motion which a static image cannot. You can read more about it if you feel so inclined. ↩