Progress and Pumpkins

The great state of Delaware, which brought you most of your corporate law and some nasty traffic jams in Newark, hosts the annual Punkin Chunkin competition this weekend.  The object is to throw a pumpkin (by mechanical means) as far as you can, without having the pumpkin become pie in midair.  I was looking at Wikipedia’s reporting of the “competition” results, and I noticed the following trend:


Do you see what I’m seeing?  Basically, the same kind of “lost decade” that we’ve seen in other fields — ranging from employment, to the 99’s% wages, to innovation in the pharmaceutical pipeline.   Actually now that I think about it, if we take seriously Bainbridge’s idea that law is a “mature industry,” that curve starts to strike pretty close to home.

It’s depressing to think that after only 20 years, the technology to create an air cannon that will throw a pumpkin over a mile has already reached its apparent apogee.  At this point, we might predict that rather than rewarding skill, the Punkin Chunkin competition really will turn on luck — puffs of wind, pumpkin skin viscosity, humidity, the passing pigeon’s path.  Nevertheless, we’ll probably come to believe that the winners in the pumpkin chunkin competition are virtuous and the losers defective, and that the results reflect some kind of fair & stable & natural ordering.  That view would be wrong.

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13 Responses

  1. A Non-E Mous says:

    Assuming virtuosity and defectiveness would be a mistake, but assuming that the results will roughly show talent, work, etc. would not be. While those exogenous factors could be determinative in ordering, they likely wouldn’t be for stratification. (I.e. though who is second or third is likely random, the field of participants who put the work in to be able to achieve those spots would still hinge on individual choices.) If we could make a regression that showed every foot, those random variables would count for some, but the work, talent, effort, variables would probably be much greater.

  2. Brett Bellmore says:

    Yes, luck may determine who among the ‘virtuous’ achieve first place, but (lack of) ‘virtue’ continues to determine who doesn’t get near it.

    And, meanwhile, somebody out there is breeding improved ballistic pumpkins, or designing the ideal pumpkin sabot, so ‘virtue’ isn’t entirely out of the running even now.

  3. There are two ways to make the cannons more powerful. Chunkers could make the barrels longer, so they could accelerate the pumpkins for a longer time. Or they could make the air blasts stronger, so the pumpkins experience a higher acceleration.

    The problem is that barrels are around the maximum practical length mobile cannons (you have to get the cannon to the site on a truck and over a highway) and today’s acceleration is already balanced right at the edge of rupturing the pumpkins shell.

    The only way forward is to breed a stronger pumpkin. Something at least one team is trying to do. They’ve sponsored research on breed a rounder, more uniform pumpkin with a thicker, more “splat resistant” shell.

    If they succeed, record throw will start increasing again. At least until they reach the limit of the new pumpkins shell.

  4. steve says:

    Clearly they need some more categories to keep the pumpkin throwing competition fresh and exciting. How about full auto? That would be fun.

  5. Miles says:

    Two points:

    1) It seems from the graph that the mile barrier has not yet been broken.

    2) I would surmise that the marginal cost per foot is increasing around the 4000-4500 foot range. In other words, it gets rather expensive to build a device that will launch a pumpkin more than 4500 feet. Maybe people just aren’t willing to dump their money into pumpkin throwing beyond a certain point. However, people put their money into some pretty stupid stuff. It must be the economy!

  6. Dan says:

    Why is it depressing that it took only 20 years to bring pumpkin chucking technology to the pitch of perfection? Did you have so little faith in your fellow man’s resourcefulness that you thought it would take forever? Having reached the limits of the pumpkin’s endurance, isn’t trying to breed a tougher projectile a violation of the original goal, which was to fling an edible orange gourd as far as possible? Said fruit is edible, and more importantly enjoyed, because its’ flesh it soft and sweet. Breed those qualities out of it and you are no longer launching pumpkins, just bio-engineered cannonballs.

  7. Scott P. says:

    Okay, please, I beg you, it’s “Pumpkin Chuckin'” not “Pumpkin Chunkin'” You are throwing them, not building machines to dice them.

  8. James F. says:

    Obviously Scott P. has never attended the Chunk, or seen a Punkin get what’s coming to it. ‘Punkin Chunkin’ is the right phrase.

  9. Chet says:

    I’m also not surprised that it only took 20 years to hit a plateau of punkin chunkin, since the ballistics technologies were all largely explored by the previous 1000 years of military artillery/siege weapons development.

  10. Alan says:

    Hello Dave: There is a fundamental limit in Punkin Chunkin called the speed of sound. If you try to push a pumpkin through the air faster than the speed of sound (Mach 1), it will disintegrate. Here’s a question for you: if you take a pumpkin of the optimum size, weight and shape, and you accelerate it to about 80% of the speed of sound and then let it loose at the optimum trajectory angle, how far will it go? By my calculations, the answer is approximately 5000 feet. In other words, the cannon designers are running into a fundamental limit, and that limit is the speed of sound. BTW, I tried to broach this topic on the Punkin Chunkin discussion forums and the basic response I got was: “Hey College Boy, quit thinking so much and drink some beer.” So perhaps you and I do not really understand the Zen of Punkin Chunkin 😉

  11. mikee says:

    The development of rounder pumpkins, more resistant to self-shredding during launch, is one way forward; the limits to the power of the launchers are not yet reached.

    Next may I suggest a pumpkin grown to be shaped more like a Minie Ball, with one end hollow and the other end pointed, for better conformity to the barrel of the launcher?

    And then we will deal with barrel rifling, to stabilize the projectile pumpkins with some spin.

    And the use of compressed air or catapults is self-limiting. How about a black powder category for pumpkin launchers?

    Of course, all the above is foolish. The use of regularly grown, unfrozen roundish pumpkins is one of the randomized hazards of the sport.

    One could chuck a pumpkin farther if the thing were frozen solid with a center of ice. One could chuck a pumpkin farther if the thing were aerodynamically shaped and of uniform density in cross section, maybe made of plastic.

    But those things are not *pumpkins* are they?

  12. Ryan says:

    Breed a pumpkin with dimpled skin

  13. Uncle Mike says:

    The aerodynamic properties of a coach and four leave much to be desired. The combination of jittery horses, indignant coachmen and glass slippers is not conducive to great speed or accuracy. Insider tip: wait till midnight. Coach turns back into a pumpkin, and you are back in business.