Moving Mountains


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I got to thinking about the subject of moving mountains recently. The phase “moving mountains” is such a proverbial expression for doing the impossible that it is easy to use it without really thinking about it. After all, what is more impossible than moving a mountain?

But is it really impossible? I had to wonder. I’m pretty sure that no one has ever done it before, but that’s not the same thing as something being impossible. Once I got to thinking about it I started thinking of ways that I could prove or disprove it. Could a single person, using only their own power move a mountain one handful at a time within their lifetime?

This question posed some interesting new questions: how big was the mountain? How far did it need to be moved? Was it necessary to move every particle of the mountain from peak to perimeter, or would it be acceptable just to inch the peak over a tiny bit? ( after all, the Mid Atlantic fault only moves about a centimeter each year). How would you know exactly where the mountain began? What was the mountain made of?

I started filling in some hypothetical answers: it is a mountain made of sand in an otherwise completely featureless environment. It would be in the shape of a come with sharply delineated edges and would have to move far enough that it’s new perimeter only intersects with it’s previous perimeter at a single point. The person moving the mountain would begin at age eighteen (adulthood: so the size of her hands wouldn’t change) and she would work at a constant pace every day for twelve hours filling nothing but moving handful after handful of sand from one place to another.

Now it’s a math problem.

First there’s the volume of the mountain to consider- broken down into the unit of handfuls. Does one measure the volume of a mountain in weight or size? Is the overall volume of the mountain a constant? Is it a specific mountain that we are moving? A K2 will take a fair bit longer to move than a Monadnock. Or is the volume of the mountain a variable limited by the span of a human lifetime?

Then there is the question of time: how long does it take to move one handful of sand off the mountain and onto the new site? Presumably once we know the period of this trip we could simply divide the work day into trips to know how much mountain can be moved in a day to calculate how many days it would take to move the whole mountain. But even this question is tricky: where is the handful being picked up? From the top of the mountain or the foot? If it is the top then how long does it take to climb the mountain each time? If it is from the foot, then does each handful come from the same place along the foot? And what about the new mountain? If it is a mountain made of sand then it would be important to begin the new mountain at its center point because the sand would naturally roll down to form a cone. But then how much would the time needed for each trip change as the new mountain got taller?

And then there’s the philosophical questions: would a person be able to keep working at the same task for an entire lifetime without family or love or leisure our inspiration? Would the noble task of moving the mountain be enough to sustain them? The work would be dull in the extreme: repetitive in the extreme. There would be nothing else in this person’s life except the mountain moving.

And what of the mountain? A mountain moved is a mountain changed: the whole mountain may move, but the mountain is not being moved whole. It is being broken down into handfuls and reassembled. What was once at the peak may now be at the core. It will be a different mountain that stands in the new place: is rebuilding a mountain the same as moving it? Why is it important to move the mountain in the first place? Is this exercise about the mountain or about the mover?

It’s possible that I might be overthinking this.

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~ by Gwydhar Gebien on August 2, 2015.

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