Zeno’s Paradox of Achilles and the Tortoise

“

There is no motion because that which is moved must arrive at the middle of its course before it arrives at the end.

”

The quotation, from Aristotle’s Physics, expresses the principle underlying Zeno’s parable of the

racebetween Achilles and the tortoise. A tortoise challenges Achilles to a race, asking only that he begiven a head start. Achilles scoffs at the suggestion but the tortoise explains that the race need noteven take place because it would be impossible for Achilles to catch up with him once he had startedrunning from his vantage point some way down the track.

“When you reach the point from which I started,

you must admit that I will have run further still,even though it may be a small distance. When you have run that distance, I shall have run furtherstill, and so on

ad infinitum

. “

At this point, Achilles should have insisted on running the race and proved empirically that the

tortoise’s argument was

false. This provides a clue to the counterintuitive idea that a fast runnercannot overtake a slow one, which contradicts our quotidian experience.

If we stick to the tortoise’s

a priori argument we are caught in a logical trap, but if we insist on an empirical refutation the statusof logic is downgraded, and we must doubt the applicability of logical argument to physical events.

The tortoise’s argument is one way of defining the race but there are other way

s that exclude theparadoxical trap. For example, Achilles could run the agreed distance L (which might have been 1stadion = 185.4 metres) separately and the tortoise could then have run the shorter distance L/10say. Timing both events would show that Achilles runs the full distance faster than the tortoise runsthe shorter one, the conclusion being that Achilles must have won, without having to overtake thetortoise. The objection to this in those ancient times would be that there were no clocks capable of accurately measuring such short time spans. Zeno might have objected that this was no race at all,because the events took place at different times. If Achilles runs first, he obviously crosses thefinishing line first, but if the tortoise goes first he wins if only because he crossed the finishing linebefore Achilles even starts to run.

So, we are forced to consider the mathematics of Zeno’s argument. We can suppose that the

tortoise has a starting advantage of

K < L

which is sufficiently small to allow Achilles to catch upbefore the race is over. Careful consideration will show that

K

can always be set so the tortoise canwin but that this is not the case here. The decreasin

g distances defined by Zeno’s argument can be

precisely defined in terms of the relative velocities of Achilles and the tortoise. Let these be

V

a

and

V

t

respectively. Achilles runs the distance

K

0

in

T

1

= K

0

/ V

a

. The distance run by the tortoise in time

T

1

will be

K1 = T

1.

V

t

= K

0

V

t

/ V

a

. A series of geometrically decreasing distances can now be defined

as(K

0

+ K

1

+ K

2

+ …+K

n

) =

K

0

∑

n

(V

t

/ V

a)

n

. Since

V

t

< V

a

the sum will converge to an infinite limit, which isthe point where Achilles catches up with the tortoise being

D = K

0

V

a

/(V

a

-V

t

)

.We can now calculate the time taken by Achilles to cover the distance

D

which is

T

D

= D/V

a

. At anytime between

D/V

a

and Achilles’ finishing time

L/V

a

, we can claim that the tortoise has beenovertaken.

This provides an a priori rather than an empirical refutation of Zeno’s argument.

However, the objection remains that an infinite summation of the decreasing differences isimpossible in the physical world. A way out of this difficulty is to ignore the race track altogether

and consider the relative velocity of Achilles and the tortoise, which is

V

a

–

V

t

. The time taken byAchilles to close the initial gap

K

is therefore

K

0

/( V

a

–

V

t

)

so the distance

D = K

0

V

a

/( V

a

–

V

t

)

which isthe same formula derived using the infinite summation.

The cleverness or inadequacy of Zeno’s argument is that it is an incomplete model which precludes

consideration of the race as a whole, focussing only on the vanishingly small distances between theparticipants. The argument is a

petitio principii

in that it assumes in advance that motion isimpossible and creates a model that favours this assumption. The existence of other theoreticalmodels which do conform to everyday experience and the intuitions based on it resolve the

apparent paradox by rejecting Zeno’s model.Water clocks existed in Zeno’s time, so the timing of a race

by this means should not be ruled out.However, modern circular clocks do provide continual, empirical refutations of

Zeno’s argument. The

minute hand of a clock does overtake the hour hand several times a day, but the question is: at whattime do the hour and minute hands of a clock coincide?The method of calculation is similar to the one used to find the crossover poin

t in Zeno’s race. The

minute hand of the clock completes one revolution in the time it takes the hour hand to move thefive minute division between one hour and the next. The relative velocity is therefore

1/12

. The firstcoincidence after

12 O’clock

is

12/11

hours =

1h 5m 27.27 sec

. Peculiarly there will only be 11 uniquecoincidences, with no coincidence between

10h 54m 32.72 sec

and

12h 0m 0sec

. Since thecoincidences are independent of the clock face divisions, the latter could be dispensed with. Theresult would be a clock which divides the diurnal cycle into

22

equal periods.If a typical clock is observed closely, the minute hand appears to move in one second jerks ratherthan smoothly. The implication is that it cannot exactly coincide with the hour hand at any timeother than

12 O’clock

, since there are no other coincidences exactly measured in whole seconds. Inthis sense, Zeno would be correct in asserting that the minute hand cannot overtake the hour handat such a coincidental point but would be wrong in concluding that it could not do so after that

point. This is because we assume that ‘time’ is a continuous process, rather than more correctly

realising it is the nature of the physical process that defines how time is to be interpreted. If physicalprocess involving movement are small but discontinuous, they can be regarded as almost continuousbecause the smallness of the Planck constant.The movements of Achilles and the tortoise can be regarded as individual steps, or strides. WhenAchilles has run the overtaking distance D, he may be in mid stride, between and

n

and

n +1

strides,in which case he will overtake the tortoise on completion of the nth stride. His stride cannot exactlycoincide with the point

D

unless

V

a

is exactly divisible by

V

a

–

V

t

. If it is, then he must complete

n +1

strides before we can claim that he has overtaken the tortoise. In either case, he is bound to win therace unless Paris shoots him in the heel with an arrow first

, but Zeno’s argument would also

rule outthis possibility too. We can conclude from this that Zeno did not believe

Homer’s tale or ind

eed anymyths where mythological figures get pierced by arrows. This must have been comforting since onhis theory he could never be hit by a missile of any kind.The idea of a limit that cannot be transcended appears in Einstein

’

s Theory of Relativity. He arguedthat, as the velocity of a mass approaches the speed of light, the energy required to accelerate themass approaches infinity. Since the speed of light is a constant, he concluded that the mass must

increase without limit, which is impossible. Like Zeno

’

s argument, this mathematical proof seemscounterintuitive, but empirically true according to certain scientific observations. Using the earlierNewtonian model, there appears to be no reason to doubt that a mass could reach the speed of lightand possibly exceed it. The point is that different theories may lead to different truths. Putting it theother way round, two theories cannot be different and non-contradictory.

If we look at Einstein’s formula below, which relates the mass of a moving body to its rest mass

m

0

,it is arguable that the moving mass decreases as its velocity increases rather than the other way

round, so that the mass becomes zero when it attains the speed of light. As in the case of Zeno’s

puzzle, there are two interpretations consistent with the mathematical model, leaving empiricalexperiments to determine which interpretation makes sense.Zenos interpretation was based on his philosophical beliefs. His teacher Parmenides believed thattime was an illusion because the universe was a permanent whole that never changed. From thispoint of view we experience change because our consciousness is incapable of observing the

absolute nature of the universe. This approach is similar to Einstein’s four dimensional space time

continuum, where events are frozen by regarding time as another spatial dimension. Even thesimple Cartesian diagram of parabolic motion illustrates the principle of representing time as a

spatial dimension, so Einstein’s formulation was just an extension of this type of description

to afourth dimension, transcending our usual mode of experience.Zeno

’

s paradox of Achilles and the tortoise relied upon generating an infinite process whichfrustrated finite resolution, at least until mathematicians devised a satisfactory theory of limits.

When it came to Cantor’s thor

oughgoing examination of infinity, a great many paradoxes arosewhich had to be dealt with. Behind his approach to the theory of infinity lay the kind of absolutismespoused by Parmenides, which was a belief in the existence of absolute infinity rather than

Aristotle’s comparatively timid potential infinity. Cantor’s achievement was to show that a hierarch

yof infinities had to be defined as a consequence of his set theoretic approach. One of his best knownachievements was to prove that the set of irrational numbers could not be counted by the naturalnumbers. He did this by means of his diagonal argument.

Zeno’s argument was Aristotelian in character, relying on the principle that it was impossible to add

up all the increasingly tiny distances that Achilles had to run to catch up with the tortoise. Cantor

’

sstarting point was to assume that the set of natural numbers, like any set, must have a totality,which he called Aleph null.

Like Zeno’s argument, Cantor covertly employs the trick of introducin

g alimit that cannot logically be transcended, to wit the diagonal of digits in a finite square adopted forthe purpose of demonstration. This involves the belief that the square can be expanded as far asOmega (the ordinal version of Aleph null) thus preserving the property of excluding certaincombinations of digits.Once the trap is accepted, that the square cannot be greater than the arbitrary number Omega, theresult follows that the power set of the natural numbers is non-denumerable. Since the list of irrational numbers has been defined as a permutational power set, the argument degenerates into a