Just Above Sunset
January 15, 2006 - The Velocity of Everydayness













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There is no Book Wrangler column in this weekend's issue of Just Above Sunset as that particular wrangler, columnist Bob Patterson, has left his Los Angeles haunts for a long weekend in Texas. He has one of the organization's digital cameras with him, so who knows what we'll see in the January 22nd issue? He mentioned nothing about dropping by Crawford to capture the presidential brush-clearing. Perhaps we'll get long vistas with cows. Perhaps not.

Wait! There's "an organization" here? Not really. We pretend there is.

In any event, in his absence it just seems wrong not to have a book column. So here it is, and it concerns The Velocity of Honey and More Science of Everyday Life, first published by Viking Canada in 2003, but being published down here by Thunder's Mouth Press. The official publication date is February 9, but the early reviews are trickling in. The author, Jay Ingram, is host of the Canadian Discovery Channel's Daily Planet, and given the word "more" in the book title, you need to know this is a sequel to his earlier How to Dunk a Doughnut: The Science of Everyday Life.

Ingram, although he has a master's degree in microbiology from the University of Toronto, also has a sly sense of humor. So we've moved from the science how to dunk a doughnut - too many hours at Tim Horton's, no doubt - to calculating the velocity of honey. This is odd stuff.

So what is the science behind the theory of "six degrees of separation" and how do stones "skip" - and why does toast fall butter side down, and why does time seem to speed up as one grows older? And too, when visiting a new place, why does getting there always seem to take so much longer than returning home? There are twenty-four chapters, or "short meditations" if you will, on such things in this second book.

As Diana Lutz notes in her review in American Scientist, you might call the book "crossword puzzles for the scientifically minded - they offer a mental workout for its own sake but also soothe and amuse." In fact, Ingram calls this volume "a self-help book " -essays to "reduce stress" and offer "a brief interruption in the ridiculous rush of life."

Given the news of the week covered elsewhere in the pages, that's a good thing. If he's going to explain the physics of the way paper crumples and crackles when it is squeezed, then this makes sense. That's just what happens with the Los Angeles Times here some mornings.

But he's Canadian, so we do get a bit on the sport of curling. He wonders about those twenty-kilo "rocks" they use. As Lutz summarizes –

 

An upside-down drinking glass, rotating clockwise as it slides down a bar, begins to curve left. Why, then, does the curling rock curve right under similar circumstances? This question is harder to answer than you might think. The mechanism might have to do with the build-up of ice chips under the rock as it plows across the ice, which could conceivably also be what makes it growl (yes, rocks growl), but nobody knows for sure.

 

It's not the Molson's? Fascinating.

Other issues? Can you make yourself wake up at a predetermined time? (Seems so here.) Do you have a sixth sense that allows you to perceive objects in your path even in total darkness? (That's easy. No, you use one of the five, your sense of hearing, and he suggests hissing while you move your hand slowly closer to your face. You'll get the idea.)

But the scary part concerns why, as we get older, the years seem to go by faster and faster. There are real experiments that suggest an explanation for this - as we age, our biological clocks run slower and, since our clocks are running slower, the world seems to speed up. Lutz says Ingram describes a man with a brain tumor that affected his biological clock - and the fellow quit driving and watching television because traffic seemed to be rushing at him at an incomprehensible speed and television screeched on faster than he could follow. When I get a copy of the book I'll skip that chapter, as that may be happening here now. The bottom line is that when you're twenty, your life is half over, given how your "biological clock" works. Somehow that feels right.

Until you get you copy of the book, you might want to check out this radio interview (audio link and transcript) with Ingram from Living on Earth, November 18, 2005. The host is Steve Curwood.

Here's a bit –

 

CURWOOD: Okay, how fast is honey?

INGRAM: Well, it depends on the height you're dropping it onto your toes. The higher it is, the faster it's going to fall. It also coils up in a really interesting way on your toes, too. You know, honey dripping on toes is just one of the many everyday experiences that has really interesting science in it.

 

Yeah, but he doesn't explain it.

He does explain toast always hitting the floor butter-side down –

 

It's actually a very simple answer and that is - it really has to do with the height of the table above the floor.

Most kitchen tables where you're eating you're eating your toast are about the same height. And here's the thing: if the toast tips off the edge of the table, then it starts to rotate, so when it's rotating, if you gave it enough time, it could rotate a full 360 and land butter-side up and you'd be okay.

Or, if the kitchen table were just inches above the floor, the toast could tilt but not quite fall over. It will rotate less than 90 degrees and settle back so that it was still butter-side up. And it turns out that toast falling off the edge of a table and rotating, if it's a typical table, doesn't have enough time to do a full 360 and will land butter-side down.

 

Oh. The intelligent design people would say it was God determining this all - the toast always landing upside down is a mini-Job trial for us all. Science it seems, can explain lots of things. Even the most mundane.

And there's this –

 

CURWOOD: (LAUGHS) But wait a second, you're saying scientists sit around studying which side toast is going to land on when it goes off the table?

INGRAM: Yeah, so there's two ways of reacting to this. One, I detect in your voice, a kind of arching of the eyebrows. "What? Scientists do this?" But you know, scientists have senses of humor too, and I'm quite sure that those scientists who've investigated this are doing it partly to collect the data because it's kind of interesting; partly just to amuse themselves and, hopefully, others.

 

Science is fun? Well it can be. Except for the "Are You Staring At Me?" chapter. Check that out in the interview. If somebody's stares at you, do you generally interpret it as a threatening gesture? The experiment is strange, and disturbing.

And there's this on the time passing business –

 

Well, we all know, if we've been living long enough, as you get older time seems to move more quickly. And, you know, I think this is pretty common. You remember summer vacation when you were in grade 6 or grade 5? It seemed to take forever. Well, summer vacations now you barely catch your breath before you have start work again in the fall.

One of the questions is why does this happen? And it seems that one of our biological clocks in our brain slows down with age, just as many things slow down. And with a slower clock, more events seem to happen in a given time, so it feels like time is moving faster. The more interesting aspect, though, to me, is just how much faster is it?

And a guy named Robert Lemlich came up with an equation in the mid-70s or so, and he argued that... here's the really depressing part of this: Let's say that you're 40 right now, and you're going to live to 80. So you feel like, "hey, I've got half my life ahead of me." Lemlich says, well, you may have literally another 40 years, half your life, but it's not going to feel like that. And he did some calculations and showed that when you're 40 time is probably seeming to pass by, subjective time is going twice as fast as it did when you were ten. On that basis, you've really actually already lived more than 70 percent of your subjective life. So, you think you have half your life left; it's only going to feel like 30 percent of your life. And by the time you're 60, that 20 years is only going to feel like 13 percent of your life.

 

Yipes! And the he quotes the nineteenth century British poet Robert Southey - "Live as long as you may, the first twenty years are the longest half of your life. They appear so while they're passing, they seem to have been when we look back on them, and they take up more room in our memory than all the years that succeed them."

Damn, that's cold. Time doesn't really fly when you're having fun. It just flies, faster and faster and faster. Not fair!

Ah well. Time to hunt down this book.

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Note: This is the age of the internet. Jay Ingram's blog is here.































 
 
 
 

Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
 
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