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Tiny moments can be “Thomian.”

René Frédéric Thom was a French mathematician most famous for his development of Catastrophe Theory which sought to formalize how continuous systems could undergo sudden, dramatic shifts. Thom noted that things that seem to be moving along in a systematic manner often become discontinuous. The shift could be instigated by some outside force (e.g., a friendly dog attacks at a provocative movement) or they could result from internal factors that were undetected (e.g., an earthquake is triggered by deep seismic pressures).

The theory, first published in 1972, enjoyed considerable success in mathematics as it seemed to provide a foundation for not only understanding how seeming stability became unstable but for possibly laying the basis for predicting the points or moments of discontinuity.

It wasn’t to be, as Thom himself acknowledged in his 1997 autobiography, “Catastrophe theory is dead. For as soon as it became clear that the theory did not permit quantitative prediction, all good minds … decided it was of no value. “

But as a metaphor for examining the world about us it looms large. It invites counterfactual speculation imploring us to look back at moments where the usual became unusual, where the lugubrious was brightened or the derivative became original. And when we do we wonder “what if?”

A short list (it is easily made longer … and from any perspective):

a. John Wilkes Booth is spotted with a pistol in the hallway

b. FDR sticks with Henry Wallace as VP

c. Lee Harvey Oswald misses

d. John Hinckley doesn’t

e. O’Conner votes to continue the recount

Of course, the only place this kind of exercise leads is to science fiction but it’s a fun way to kill some time waiting for the ‘Hawks game to begin.

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