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Pynchon's New Worlds

International Pynchon Week 2017

La Rochelle, June 5-9, 2017


The Momentum of Pynchon’s Secret Formula: Gravity's Rainbow’s Second Equation between Archival Sources and Mathematico-Ethical Fiction
Nina Engelhardt and Harald Engelhardt

Scheduled in the Auditorium - Médiathèque: Thursday 8 June, from 16:45 to 17:15

Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow features three equations in mathematical notation, a fact that has contributed to its key role in the development of the field of Literature and Science Studies. The second equation is introduced as describing

As the least accessible equation it continues to puzzle scholars, and its scientific meaning and role in the novel remain a long-standing gap in scholarship. This talk, the product of a collaboration between a scientist and a literary scholar, draws on archival research conducted at the Deutsches Museum, Munich, Germany. It situates the equation in its scientific and technical contexts of rocketry, and, based on this new understanding of the equation, evaluates its place in Gravity’s Rainbow and Pynchon’s scientific-ethical vision.

In a first step, we use archival material – original documents on German rocket research during the Second World War – to establish the scientific meaning and “correctness” of Pynchon’s second equation. In particular, we re-evaluate the existing interpretation by Schachterle and Aravind and their conclusion that the equation “is not a genuine mathematical expression in this context. It may appear authoritative to the layperson, but it is unlikely to fool a rocket scientist.” (Schachterle/Aravind 2000: 162). 1 This, as the collected archival material suggests, is not correct. Instead, the archival research shows that Pynchon draws on original sources that do not describe motion itself but that concern the control of motion. Apart from demonstrating, once again, how well-researched Pynchon’s texts and his scientific information are, the context and technical details of the equation illuminate the notion of control that holds a central place in Gravity’s Rainbow. Based on the refined understanding of the equation, we are able to clarify ethical implications of concepts of gravity, inertia, and spaces of freedom. Offering new material to examine Pynchon’s negotiations of the ethics of science and technology, the archive-based interpretation of the second formula supports the argument that Pynchon’s breakdown of the division between techno-science and fiction is not an end in itself but is intricately related to ethical questions.

The talk with its examination of the roles of mathematical notation, scientific knowledge, and historical context in Pynchon’s use of the second equation, explores how a prominent example of mathematical material in a novel has long been obscure but can, viewed in its appropriate contexts, reveal new facets of a key novel in the development of the field of Literature and Science Studies. Based on the previously neglected archival sources on rocketry, the talk demonstrates the role of the equation, the significance of its mathematical notation, and its place regarding Pynchon’s situating his work in the tradition of physico-theological writing.


  1. Schachterle, Lance and P. K. Aravind (2000). ‘The Three Equations in Gravity’s Rainbow’. Pynchon Notes 46-49, 157-169.