In the novel Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, there is a chapter in which Slothrop (the main character) thinks about this equation:

$$\theta \frac{d^2\phi}{dt^2} + \delta^* \frac{d\phi}{dt} + \frac{\partial L}{\partial\alpha}(s_1-s_2)\alpha = -\frac{\partial R}{\partial\beta} s_3\beta\,.$$

It seems to be something to do with the V2 rocket, and yaw control. Does anyone recognise this equation from a book or research paper? What do the various variables stand for? He may have invented the equation, I suppose. How would one go about solving an equation like this? I find it strange that it contains both partial derivatives and total derivatives. However, there are equations in Hamiltonian mechanics like this.

Any help would be much appreciated. Thank you.

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    $\begingroup$ I took the liberty of (a) including an image of the equation, and (b) specializing the title to indicate the Pynchon-source of the equation. $\endgroup$ Mar 19, 2017 at 2:53
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    $\begingroup$ Googling, I stumbled on a paper by Magueijo and Smolin (2004, Classical and Quantum Gravity, Volume 21) called "Gravity's rainbow" - in context of relativity theory, they consider energy-dependent families of metrics and call these rainbow metrics. $\endgroup$
    – მამუკა ჯიბლაძე
    Mar 19, 2017 at 9:46
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    $\begingroup$ Maybe somebody on the Physics or Space Exploration site could shed some light. $\endgroup$
    – Jason C
    Mar 19, 2017 at 16:11
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    $\begingroup$ How can I re-post this on the Space Exploration site? $\endgroup$
    – user947185
    Mar 19, 2017 at 18:43
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    $\begingroup$ @user947185 Flag it for moderator attention and ask them to do it. $\endgroup$
    – FFF
    Mar 22, 2017 at 16:12

2 Answers 2


Schachterle, Lance, and P. K. Aravind. "The three equations in Gravity's Rainbow." Pynchon Notes 46-49 (2000): 157-170. Journal Link.

"In our view, Pynchon inscribes these equations into Gravity's Rainbow to challenge readers with yet another form of authority within the text."

Sorry—hit a pay wall...
Later: Got through the pay wall:

          enter image description here

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    $\begingroup$ I myself don't accept their conclusion that this is "not a genuine mathematical expression." It seems unlikely Pynchon would concoct this without a basis in some real document. But I defer to "rocket scientists"... $\endgroup$ Mar 19, 2017 at 1:17
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    $\begingroup$ There's a journal devoted entirely to the study of the works of Thomas Pynchon? And here I thought math journals were highly specialized... $\endgroup$ Mar 19, 2017 at 2:48
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    $\begingroup$ @NateEldredge: "Pynchon Notes was a journal devoted to studying the works of Thomas Pynchon. Running from 1979 to 2009." 30 yrs. $\endgroup$ Mar 19, 2017 at 2:50
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    $\begingroup$ Hmm. By the criterion of "two literary critics tried to pattern-match the equation against two textbooks and failed, so the equation is fake", I've a feeling that almost my entire career is fake. $\endgroup$ Mar 19, 2017 at 9:07
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    $\begingroup$ @DavidRicherby, "pattern-match" may be a slightly unfair way of putting it. Note that one of the authors, P.K. Aravind is a professor of physics users.wpi.edu/~paravind (though, not, so far as I can tell, an expert on rocket science), $\endgroup$
    – j.c.
    Mar 19, 2017 at 15:56

Engelhardt, N. & Engelhardt, H., (2018) “The Momentum of Pynchon's Secret Formula: Gravity’s Rainbow’s Second Equation between Archival Sources and Fiction”, Orbit: A Journal of American Literature 6(1). Journal link here

The source of the equation was found in a Control System book for the V-2 rockets. The reason the equation wasn't readily understandable was because the coefficients used were part of a larger set of equations that couldn't be known without context.


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    $\begingroup$ Great! Thanks for the link. $\endgroup$ Sep 22, 2023 at 12:07
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    $\begingroup$ Marvelous! I hope the OP reappears to accept this answer. $\endgroup$ Sep 22, 2023 at 15:52
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    $\begingroup$ If anyone is curious, this book “History of German Guided Missiles Development” is freely available on archive.org. The pages following the image posted go into even further detail on the equation. $\endgroup$ Sep 23, 2023 at 0:11

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