Use this forum to suggest Good Words for Professor Beard.
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Postby Audiendus » Sat May 14, 2011 11:00 am

Asymptotic (adjective)

Getting ever closer to something but never actually reaching it.

This is a mathematical term relating to a curve approaching a straight line on a graph. But I think it could be useful in a wider, non-technical sense too, as there does not seem to be any other way of expressing the general idea so concisely.

"The explorers' advance toward the South Pole, ten miles away, was brave but asymptotic. Four miles one day, then two, then one, then a half, until they eventually gave up."

"He is making asymptotic progress on his novel. I don't think he'll ever finish it."

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Postby Slava » Sat May 14, 2011 1:45 pm

Interesting word. There is something in philosophy about this, I believe. The idea that we can actually get someplace is complicated. To get anywhere, you have to get half-way there first. Then half-way again and so on. How do we cross that last bit?
Life is like playing chess with chessmen who each have thoughts and feelings and motives of their own.

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Postby MTC » Sun May 15, 2011 3:37 am

An excellent choice, Audiendus, and a useful metaphorical extension of what would otherwise be a desiccated mathematical term. We never reach the horizon which however close we approach, always recedes. In my mind the idea of the asymptote conjures up a passage from Keat's Ode on a Grecian Urn:

"Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal—yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!"

I think Slava has in mind Zeno's famous paradox of Achilles and the Tortoise. (See ... e_tortoise) According to Gilbert Ryle, a 20th century philosopher: "In many ways it deserves to rank as the paradigm of a philosophical puzzle."

There is something "tantalizing" about the idea.

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Postby Audiendus » Sun May 15, 2011 7:13 am

Thanks. An asymptote implies that we really do get closer all the time, but by ever smaller degrees. In the horizon example, we don't actually get any closer, so perhaps we need a different word to describe that situation. Tantalic? No, that sounds like something from chemistry. Any other ideas?

By the way, mention of Gilbert Ryle reminds me that he coined the occasionally-used phrase "the ghost in the machine", to describe (mockingly) the idea of an immaterial mind or soul in the human body.

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