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I have always loved the word “spalling,” ever since I first heard it in my youth. It’s the word for the process by which a large chunk of stone, concrete, ice, or some other solid material breaks down, shedding smaller fragments along fault lines and fissures, at impact points and between shearing layers. If you’ve ever seen documentary footage of icebergs breaking from the Antarctic pack, you’ve seen spalling in action. If you own a house, look around on the exterior. When the force acting on the material is stronger than the force holding it together, spalling is what you get.

Spalling is what happens when certain types of warheads strike armored fighting vehicles, too. Either the shock wave of the strike on the exterior is so great that the wall of the crew compartment breaks down suddenly and kinetically, flinging fragments throughout and wounding its crew or disabling its mechanisms, or the warhead pierces the armor in order to penetrate and itself produce the same effect.

But spalling is also what enables you to take a single mass and turn it into smaller parts. Been on a surface that’s designed for adequate drainage? Dig down some inches and the top layer of pea-sized stones will give way to larger ones the size of marbles. Once upon a time, all of those different sizes were broken from the same large rocks, which would have been of little use in building the gravel surface.

The same holds true with ideas. Analysts of any stripe are taught to find the ways to break a thing that’s given into smaller parts. It’s an application of mental, intellectual, or technical force. And as in these other examples, there’s a kind of violence to breaking the smaller pieces away from their original.

Now you know the name of it.

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David D. LaCroix


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The Silent X

David D. LaCroix

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