Sunday, October 08, 2006

The relativistic geography of Sydney

Mrs. Lemming and I were required to spend some time in Sydney last week. It was a bit of a culture shock. Here in Canberra, the loudest morning noises are the warbles of the magpies and the screeches of the cockatoos. Last Friday we were woken at 5 in the morning by the sound of the pre-rush trucking. But this interminable traffic is merely an expression of Sydney geography.

In order to fully explain the geography of Sydney, a few simple mathematical concepts must first be explained. Geophysicists like to break the Earth down into simple hypothetical shapes, which they then integrate back together to approximate reality. One of the simplest of these shapes is the infinite half-plane. The infinite half-plane is a plane with a single linear edge, which stretches out to infinity in all other directions.

In urban planning, there is a form of development that closely approximates the infinite half-plane. I first observed this flying into San Jose, CA one night. Looking out the window of the aircraft, I could see the blackness of the Coast Ranges cutting north towards San Fran. East of that, the lights of Silicon Valley stretched out forever in every direction. What I observed was an infinite half-suburb.

Of course, the geography of Sydney is more complicated than a simple infinite half-suburb. The only Australian city that fits that category is Perth. But Sydney can be adequately described as two infinite half-suburbs, back-to-back, with a scenic harbour in between.

The harbour is finite, memorable, and spectacular. But on either side, an unending continuum of suburban sprawl stretches to the outer limits of mathematical comprehension. It is an unending tangle of six lane roads, traffic jams, and noisy, crowded tract housing.

A classical observer or remote sensing specialist might hypothesize that two infinite quarter suburbs might more accurately describe the Sydney geography, due to the presence of the Pacific Ocean to the East. But to do so would be a mistake. To consider the Pacific Ocean as a finite, tractable boundary is to ignore a fundamental truth of Sydney geography and culture. The Pacific Ocean is an asymptotic limit, which compresses space and roads in the coastal zone to ensure that, although the ocean can always be approached, it will always lie just out of reach.

The ocean is to Sydney what the speed of light is to relativistic physics. In physics, space and time dilate as c is approached, so that the energy required for the final acceleration reaches infinity. In Sydney, the dilation occurs in space and money as the ocean is approached, so that a flat becomes infinitely small, and the cost becomes infinitely high at the water’s edge. This creates an idealized fantasy. The beachfront apartment, like faster-than-light travel, becomes an impossible dream which can be perceived by anyone, even though a mathematical proof demonstrates that it cannot possibly exist.

Thus, although Sydney appears to have an eastern edge from a satellite, from the perspective of a motorist in the 'burbs, this spatial compression insures that you can navigate one-way streets and roundabouts forever while traveling east, and never hope to reach the sea. From the driver’s point of view, the streets are infinite and unending in every direction.

In a way, the utter despair inflicted by this geography was a motivating factor. When we lived in Sydney, Mrs. Lemming and I were constantly dreaming up schemes to escape. While waiting for my visa to be approved, I even created a wormhole, allowing me to bypass the space/fund continuum and reach the waves of Manly Beach using only a bicycle and seven Xeroxed pages of street directories.

Now that we live in Canberra, we are comfortable enough to happily potter away at home for weeks at a time. So in that sense, it is no surprise that Sydney is the state’s economic powerhouse. The poor souls who live there have no choice but to toil continuously, just to avoid the complete despondency that their forlorn surroundings would inflict, if they were foolish enough to lift their heads from their cubicles, get in a car, and drive through the never-ending traffic.


ScienceWoman said...

Having spent 5 months in NSW a few years back, I'd say you've got caught the essance of Sydney geography pretty well. Although to the south eventually the suburbs are squeezed out by the Illawara escarpment's approach to the coast.

ScienceWoman said...

Ah, how appropriate. I just realized that I was listening to The Whitlams as I read your post.