Disruptions of roundness

Updated: Apr 5

"But the peach rushed on across the countryside—on and on and on, leaving a trail of destruction in its wake. Cowsheds, stables, pigsties, barns, bungalows, hayricks, anything that got in its way went toppling over like a nine-pin.... These cliffs are the most famous in the whole of England, and they are hundreds of feet high. Below them, the sea is deep and cold and hungry.... and when it reached the edge of the cliff it seemed to leap up into the sky and hang there suspended for a few seconds, still turning over and over in the air... Then it began do fall... Down... Down... Down... Down... Down... SMACK! It hit the water with a colossal splash and sank like a stone."

-Ronald Dahl, James and the Giant Peach (2007)

A general bias in sensory systems and brains appears to be responsible for a roundness disruption effect in phenomena under aesthetic selection throughout the animal world. Humans are universally preoccupied with the disruption of spheres, circles, points and other roundness including that of the body. When objects of such perceptually simple configurations present themselves to us we are very tempted to make them wet, fly, roll, bounce, wiggle, shake, break, crack, expand, pulsate, pop, explode, multiply, slam together or undergo some other type of disruptive transformation, purely for aesthetic satisfaction. It's not coincidental that other animals including dogs, cats, tigers, birds, penguins, bears, elephants, otters, dung beetles, primates, chimps, monkeys, mice, rats and dolphins have an interest in playing with balls and disrupting various round objects just like we do ourselves. Even though they’re not normally available in nature, and we shouldn't have any particular interest in them, we construct perfectly round objects for the purpose of sending them through cycles of up and downwardness, out and inwardness, motion and stillness and order and chaos. Ball games have been played by humans since at least 3,000 years ago (Wertmann et al. 2020), and the authors point out: “Ball games are the most numerous and most popular professional sport and leisure games in the modern era all over the world.”

We agree universally that hitting and kicking spherical objects as hard as we can, or launching them with extra leverage provided by carefully crafted, long objects such as sticks, bats or clubs, on the fastest possible outward and upward trajectories, putting them in a perceptual place upward and outward from our own position is interesting and worthwhile. We also agree that the object should somehow return to a state of stasis, centrality and containment, such as a hole in the ground, a glove, a bag, a net, a basket or the mouth of a plastic hippopotamus. Games involving round objects serve a social purpose, bringing people together across every border, and help keep us physically and mentally fit, but these are interesting side effects of a general bias favoring roundness disruption. They have nothing to do with the reasons we find playing with round objects amusing.

Humans incorporate roundness disruption in culture by way of the Yin Yang symbol, mandalas, happy faces, billiards, marbles, balloons, bubbles, crop circles, circuses, carousels, flying disks, juggling, pompoms, coin tossing, rings of fire, fire twirling, hula hoops, decorative pendulums, roulette, darts, air hockey, eyeliner and other eye makeup, crystal balls, gumballs, witches cauldrons, bouncy balls, crowns, headdresses, dunce caps, wreaths, bubble wrap popping, burning candles on cakes, caramel apples, popcorn, emoji, merry-go-round’s, fish bowls, Easter eggs, beach balls, bunny ears, Christmas tree ornaments, Magic 8-Balls, Yoyo’s, Mr. Potato Head, Hungry Hungry Hippos, Bobbleheads, Fruit Ninja, Cookie Monster throwing cookies, fidget spinners, mobiles for babies, the Time’s Square ball drop, incredulous eye rolling, disco balls, carving and smashing pumpkins, snow globes, the winged sun symbols of various cultures, and the “goofballs,” “screwballs,” “greaseballs,” “slimeballs” and “scuzballs” of our collective imagination.

Assuming animals recognize as relatively spherical or circular things which are in fact round, such as heads, eyes, pupils, clocks, the moon, stones, balls or round fruit, popular phrases involving roundness disruption seem to include “turning a blind eye,” “eye popping,” “in the twinkle of an eye,” “sparkle in your eye,” “starry-eyed,” “here’s spit in your eye,” “just spitballing,” “a spot of tea,” “the hairy eyeball,” “an eye for an eye,” “keep your eyes peeled,” “eye in the sky,” “green eyed monster,” “pie in the sky,” “a slice of the pie,” “head spinning,” “heads will roll,” “off with her head,” “a head full of steam,” “fountainhead,” “flipped it on it’s head,” “blow a gasket,” “vicious circle,” “running around in circles,” “get the runaround,” “jumping through hoops,” “around the clock,” “lightning round,” “its a coin toss,” “penny pincher,” “penny dreadful,” “hotter than a hooker's doorknob on nickel night,” “a broken record,” “square the circle,” “vicious circle,” “howling at the moon,” “moon beam,” “makes the world go round,” “turn the world upside down,” “turn on a dime,” “hot as balls,” “ball of fire,” “great balls of fire,” “leave no stone unturned,” “a rolling stone gathers no moss,” “cherry bomb,” “a bite at the cherry,” “firing on all cylinders,” “bad apple,” “upset the apple cart,” “a snowball’s chance in hell,” “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade,” “hot spot,” “hit the spot,” “a leopard cannot change its spots,” “rain beats the leopard’s skin but it does not wash out the spots” (African proverb), “knock the spots off,” “knock the cover off the ball,” “have a soft spot for,” “a spot of bother,” “a spot of trouble,” “x marks the spot,” “mess around,” “throw you a softball,” “throw you a curveball,” “kick the tires,” “flashpoint,” “counterpoint,” “quit busting my balls,” “balls to the wall,” “get the ball rolling,” “balls out,” “point out,” “that's the way the ball bounces,” “the whole ball of wax,” “don’t get your balls in a twist,” “don’t get your balls in an uproar,” “run spot run,” “trippin balls,” “play ball,” “the wheels fell off,” “it’s all fun and games until somebody loses an eye,” “break a butterfly upon a wheel,” “earth shaking,” “earth shattering,” “moonshine,” and “honeymoon.”

Roundness disruption is common in names of characters, artistic writing and film, as in Elzie Crisler Segar’s Popeye, Judi Barrett’s Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach and the 1978 film Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. Mother Goose’s Tongs emphasizes disorder and length over roundness: “Long legs, crooked thighs, / Little head, and no eyes.” Roundness disruption occurs in “Cry, Baby”: “Cry, baby, cry, / Put your finger in your eye, / And tell your mother it wasn't I,” “A Well”: “As round as an apple, as deep as a cup, / And all the king's horses can't fill it up,” and “The Man in Our Town”: “There was a man in our town, / And he was wondrous wise, / He jumped into a bramble bush, / And scratched out both his eyes; / But when he saw his eyes were out, / With all his might and main, / He jumped into another bush, / And scratched 'em in again.” Pie disruption occurs in “Sing a Song of Sixpence” and “Boy and the Sparrow,” pie and plum disruption in “Little Jack Horner,” plate and date disruption in “The Greedy Man” (Goose et al., 1916). The traditional rhyme “Wheels on the Bus” is, primarily, about wheels going around and around on a bus as it moves through town. The bus and the town are the main solid characters in the song, and they contrast with the spinning wheels throughout. Other themes in the song also seem to make it more familiar, including fluidity, in swishing wipers, and high pitch in beeping, crying and shushing, all of which seem to work in contrast with the solidness of the bus and the roundness of the wheels to create an amusing song. The Grimm Brothers' "The Frog prince, or Iron Henry” (2016), the first story in their famous collection of folk tales, begins with a spherical object going through a sequence of events that are very similar to that of the peach in Dahl's James and the Giant Peach:

“Once upon a time there was a princess who went out into the forest and sat down at the edge of a cool well. She had a golden ball that was her favorite plaything. She threw it up high and caught it in the air and was delighted by all this. One time the ball flew up very high, and as she stretched out her hand and bent her fingers to catch it again, the ball hit the ground near her and rolled and rolled until it fell right into the water.”

Roundness disruption tends to arise in animal behavior through sexual selection by sensory exploitation. This is evident in the courtship display of the peacock, the great frigatebird Fregata minor, the mystery circles of the pufferfish, pupil dilation in parrots, the display of the flame bowerbird (Sericulus ardens) and the dances of Carola's parotia Parotia carolae, the greater bird of paradise Lophorina superba, and the peacock jumping spider Maratus volans. The dance of the jumping spider involves the erection of its abdomen into a colorful, roughly circular ornament, about which the male projects and waves his legs to intrigue the female. The dance of the parotia bird of paradise is partially a matter of the male making himself into a dynamic, vibrating circle, with ridges, as seen from above, and waving projections from his head about the outside of the circle’s rim. Other examples of a roundness disruption effect may include the tail feathers of the Marvelous Spatuletail Loddigesia mirabilis, the spatulate head wires of the Parotias Parotia sefilata, P. carolae, P. berlepschi, P. lawesii, P. helenae, and P. wahnesi, the erectile head plumes of the King of Saxony Bird Paradise Pteridophora alberti, which are scalloped into a few dozen regularly arranged blue “flags,” and the lacy crest plumes of the Crowned Pigeons Goura victoria, G. cristata and G. scheepmakeri.

Plato's Timaeus (2008) has an example of mythological roundness disruption:

“The gods were made in the form of a circle, which is the most perfect figure and the figure of the universe. They were created chiefly of fire, that they might be bright, and were made to know and follow the best, and to be scattered over the heavens, of which they were to be the glory.”

Assuming fire and semi-random fluidity to be comparable ways in which a round object might be disrupted, the idea of gods as fiery circles is to some extent analogous to the ancient Zen Circle or Enso. The Enso is circle made with a single stroke, in a single breath, of black ink on white paper. Inevitably it incorporates imperfections, due in various degrees to the difficulty of painting a perfectly circular form, the fact that it's done with a brush, that ink is fluid, that the brush runs out of ink toward the end of the stroke, where the paint connects to complete the circle, and that often left open deliberately.

Other curious analogies can be identified across animal species. The Buddhist Wheel of Dharma, or Dharmachakra, for instance, is strangely similar to the mystery circles male pufferfish create to impress females. Both are circular with imperfections consisting of numerous rays pointing outward from the center, and in both phenomena the center is often embellished with a fluid-like decoration.

Perhaps the most audacious example of philosophical roundness disruption is found in the cosmology of Empedocles, written about 2,500 years ago in Akragas, Greece, featuring an everlasting universal cycle between a state of perfect roundness—a cosmic sphere lacking the life-like element of strife—and the opposite configuration, consisting of total, swirling universal chaos lacking in sphere-ness and love. Between the two extremes of chaos and roundness, or strife and love, is when the world behaves the way we currently see it, with moderation and living things, which are not quite spherical:

"There views one not the swift limbs of the Sun,

Nor there the strength of shaggy Earth, nor Sea;

But in the strong recess of Harmony,

Established firm abides the rounded Sphere,

Exultant in surrounding solitude....

Nor faction nor fight unseemly in its limbs....

The Sphere on every side the boundless same,

Exultant in surrounding solitude....

For from its back there swing no branching arms,

It hath no feet nor knees alert, nor form

Of life-producing member,—on all sides

A sphere it was, and like unto itself....

Yet after mighty strife had waxen great

Within the members of the Sphere, and rose

To her own honors, as the times arrived

Which unto each in turn, to Strife, to Love,

Should come by amplest oath and old decree....

For one by one did quake the limbs of God" (Leonard 1907).

Thus the appreciation and activity of disrupting round objects is too widespread and ancient, and involves too many independent examples, in too many diverse realms of aesthetic experience for the usual utilitarian explanations to be applied. It should be assumed that animals are fascinated by and attracted to the disruption of round things, and that the preference is a feature of the brain that animals possess as a result of brain structure on a fine scale. The importance of roundness disruption to animals, based even on the few examples given here, warrants further exploration of the topic.

Exciting things in containers

Works cited

Dahl, Roald, and Blake, Quentin. James and the Giant Peach. United Kingdom, Penguin Young Readers Group, 2007.

Goose, Mother, and Blanche Fisher Wright. “The Real Mother Goose.” Apple Books. 1916.

Grimm, Wilhelm, and Grimm, Jacob. The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm: The Complete First Edition. United States, Princeton University Press, 2016.

Leonard, William Ellery. “The Fragments of Empedocles.” The Monist, vol. 17, no. 3, July 1907, pp. 451–474.

Plato. Timaeus. Translated by Benjamin Jowett. Apple Books. 2008.

Wertmann, Patrick, et al. “New Evidence for Ball Games in Eurasia from Ca. 3000-Year-Old Yanghai Tombs in the Turfan Depression of Northwest China.” Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, vol. 34, 2020, p. 102576., doi:10.1016/j.jasrep.2020.102576.

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