Anyone who doubts the existence of entropy has clearly never tried to stage a combined Buffyverse lecture/martial arts demonstration in midtown Manhattan on a Thursday evening. There must be some offshoot of that most fundamental law of physics that dictates an increasing degree of disorder the closer one gets to that midtown area. (Gratuitous side note: we specifically curse NYC's stupid new traffic rules that forbid both left AND right turns along most of 34th Street. A pox upon
Mayor Bloomberg whoever is responsible for this.) This in turn greatly lessens how much "work" can be done -- in this case, how much progress can be made in what would normally be a simple task: unloading a bunch of wrestling mats and weaponry at the CUNY Graduate Center. We eventually prevailed, but only by bringing in an enormous infusion of extra energy in the form of a couple of dedicated -- and strong -- guys from my dojo (thanks Jordan and Dave!). The folks who run CUNY's fantastic Science and the Arts program fight off this powerful, constantly encroaching entropy on a daily basis to bring the NYC populace all kinds of fascinating, fun science-related events. I bow my head in deference to their tireless outreach efforts, because just pulling off a single event completely wiped me out.
Last night's event was the culmination of almost a year of discussion and planning. Following up on the great time we had showcasing martial arts physics last summer as part of CUNY's First-Ever Amazing Science Street Fair, I put together a lecture based on one of the chapters of my new book, The Physics of the Buffyverse, which details some of the underlying basic physics principles of the most common martial arts techniques seen in the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spinoff, Angel. Sure, I showed a few clips of fight scenes from the shows -- always a crowd-pleasing approach in pop-culture physics -- but there's really no substitute for live-action violence. So several instructors and students from my former Brooklyn dojo showed up (voluntarily!) to help me demonstrate punches, spinning kicks, breakfalls, fighting stances, and a few crowd-pleasing judo throws, under the watchful eye of Sensei Jordan Dos Santos, who coordinated that aspect of the event. The crowds at both shows were terrific, very engaged, asked thoughtful, probing questions afterwards, and a couple brave souls even attempted a basic hip throw. And oh yeah, we sold a few books, too, because I have no shame. And a mortgage. (Jen-Luc Piquant extends her most gracious "Merci beaucoups" to everyone who bought copies, as it helps her maintain her pixelated perfection.)
So we fought entropy and won... temporarily. I'm sure disorder is creeping back towards the Graduate Center even as I type, because entropy always wins in the end. Let's face it, the laws of physics can be a bit of a buzzkill at times: just think of all the nifty things we could do without all those annoying little insurmountable constraints imposed by entropy. Or energy conservation. Or gravity. On the other hand, scientists continually amaze me with the ingenious ways they find to work around those fundamental constraints, time and time again. Most modern technology -- including the infamous "Moore's Law" in the semiconductor industry, which has yet to reach a fundamental limit, despite decades of warnings -- is the result of scientists refusing to give up in the face of tough obstacles. They don't break the laws of physics, mind you; they work within those "boundary conditions" to find loopholes and come up with clever ways to exploit them.
One has to strike a very fine balance between recognizing what the physical realities are in science and working within those inherent limitations, and refusing to accept the status quo in favor of pursuing innovation and potentially revolutionary breakthroughs. Where would science be if its practitioners weren't constantly pushing the envelope? Yet not all things are possible; those limitations are real. The trick is knowing where you can push, and where you must simply accept reality as it is.
Believe it or not, this has a tie-in to Buffy... and to me. As a woman in the martial arts who trained for seven years in a predominantly male dojo, I had to deal with some very real physical limitations on a daily basis. Invariably, I found myself paired with (or against) someone bigger and stronger -- sometimes MUCH bigger and stronger -- and I literally got my ass kicked more times than I care to remember. I had to learn those inescapable realities and work within my own physical constraints. But there was still room for innovation, for pushing the envelope here and there along the road to becoming a better fighter. And there were some "realities" I found I didn't have to blithely accept, in the form of cultural stereotypes about what girls can, and cannot, do.
There's a popular saying in martial arts circles: "All things being equal, the bigger stronger person will win." As I pointed out in my lecture last night, there's some scientific merit to this statement, because mass is a major part of the equation when it comes to the physics of the fight. Good technique can help a little; I quickly learned lots of little "tricks" to involve even a small amount of additional body mass in my techniques to make them more effective, and for two years prior to my black belt test, I packed on an extra 30 pounds of (mostly) muscle. Not only did I have more weight to throw around, but I could take the hits much better, with a lower risk of injury -- a key factor to consider when you're training full-contact four nights a week.
But sooner or later, we all hit the limit of what our particular "system" (body type) allows us to do. And if we accept that statement about the bigger, stronger person being predetermined to win a fight, why bother training at all? Why not just give up? After all, there will always be somebody bigger and stronger, somewhere, no matter what your size -- unless you're, say, Andre the Giant. That's where Buffy comes in. She's tiny -- very little body mass -- and while the premise of the series is that she has super powers ("Slayer strength") in the form of extra mystical energy (I would like some of that, please!), this only gives her an advantage over mere mortals. The demons she fights have their own super powers, and are usually bigger and stronger. And yet over and over again, she wins.
She wins in part because, well, it's a TV show, and she's the title character. You can't have Buffy the Vampire Slayer without Buffy (although this didn't keep her from dying... twice). But there's more to it than that. She's also trained hard in the martial arts, perfecting her techniques, learning how to get the most bang for her buck, given what she has to work with. But she also realizes, thanks to her practical combat experience, that all things are never equal. She knows she always has a chance -- not necessarily a good chance, but a chance, nonetheless.
See, that statement about bigger and stronger opponents is true, as far as it goes, but it assumes a carefully controlled environment that severely restricts the variables. Specifically, it considers how much force an opponent can generate to be the sole means of determining the outcome of a fight. That just isn't the case. It's undeniably a major factor: I can say, from personal experience, that being kicked into a wall and bouncing off again instills tremendous respect for the advantages of superior size. However, I prefer a less defeatist attitude. By all means, we must acknowledge that yes, size matters, but we also need to recognize that it's far from being the whole story. The "real world" (and, clearly, the Buffyverse) is a messy, uncontrolled environment, and there are all kinds of tiny variables that can change the outcome of a fight in a split second. A fight will not play out in reality the way it would in a laboratory simulation.
There's another reason I prefer my version of the "size matters" argument: it's almost always cited by male martial artists as the primary reason why women aren't as "good" at fighting as the men. I was fortunate to train with some terrific guys who always assured me I could succeed, without ever sugar-coating the reality of superior size and strength. One of my instructors memorably told me, early on, "It's not enough to be as good as the men. You have to be better." On the surface, this would seem to be a double standard, but that really wasn't his point. He was a smaller guy. He had to be technically better than the big guys as well. What he was saying was this: the real world isn't fair. There are some undeniable physical realities that a woman (or smaller man) must contend with in a dojo environment, and when size and strength are lacking, superior technique must step in to make up the difference. The deck is stacked to favor size and strength. That doesn't mean a smaller person can't beat a larger one out on the "da street." (Here's just two things missing in the dojo: genuine surprise, and very real pain.)
This should resonate not just with women in the martial arts, but women in physics, or women in NASCAR, or women in any traditionally male-dominated field, because, frankly, the same kind of "innate ability" argument is used in every such arena as a rationale for why more women can't or don't succeed in those fields. Even the success stories are generally viewed with winking condescension.
One of my (many) favorite scenes in Buffy occurs in Season 5, where she is forced to perform a series of pointless tests by the Watcher's Council -- from which she parted ways two seasons earlier -- in exchange for crucial information about her nemesis du jour, the exiled hellgod named Glory. None of the tests favor Buffy's particular, unique strengths; rather, they are designed around an established, traditional criteria dating back at least to medieval times. (It's also criteria that, historically, tend to get most Slayers killed before reaching the age of 20). She gamely jumps through hoop after hoop, with the Council members frowning disapprovingly at her supposedly sub-par performance, causing her to question her own abilities and judgment, finding any means necessary to take away her sense of power so she can be manipulated and controlled. Buffy figures it out, eventually. And she takes her power back. The fundamental situation she faces hasn't changed, just how she chooses to react to it. And that shift in attitude makes all the difference. (Historical note: famed martial artist Bruce Lee had one leg that was shorter than the other. He was told he'd probably never be a great kung fu practitioner because of his physical "disability," but instead of accepting that short-sighted verdict, he designed his own style, jeet kune do, which capitalized on his strengths. Bruce also took back his power.)
That's the real lesson I find in Buffy and the physics of the martial arts, beyond the basic scientific principles. There will always be someone more than willing to tell you how much you suck, why you can't do well at something you love and wish to pursue, why you aren't fit to share the same air as more exalted beings blessed with that elusive "innate ability." They'll try to make you doubt yourself, because some people just can't stand it when others excel. Some people are just mean-spirited that way. That doesn't make them right. It's important to understand the stark realities of what you face, but if you really, really want to succeed -- whether it's in the martial arts, the sciences, or any other field that ignites your passion, don't let a few naysayers douse your enthusiasm. That's when you set about working within those constraints, addressing those shortcomings that are within your power to change, and figuring out how your particular strengths can work to your advantage. Find your inner Slayer and take back your power.
Yeah, I know. Easier said than done. But that's what Buffy would do. And it's what our greatest scientists do, day after day, pushing the boundaries of what is possible a little bit at a time.