Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Overpasses are bad, m'kay?

We are all susceptible to wrong thinking- one could say it’s fundamental to what makes us human- and I’m no exception.  I do pride myself on generally knowing whether an idea is coherent or not (something I’ve worked very hard at), but I make occasional (read: lots of) mistakes.  Last night could have killed me, so I guess it was more than your usual misinformation (whether I believe in Bigfoot is seldom life threatening) or even the more practical knowledge (knowing when a so-called “business deal” is a scam).

The double rainbow I saw.
I suppose I should set the scene.  I live in Altus, a small town in southwestern Oklahoma, and I frequently have medical appointments that the local area can’t field, so I have to drive for about an hour to get to Lawton, a slightly larger small town that manages to pass as a city (no offense, well, not too much offense to my Okie friends).  Yesterday afternoon, there was a warning that there might be hail in the area, and when I looked at the weather radar, there was a heavy storm coming right for us.  I figured if I left immediately, I should be able to stay just ahead of the storm.  On the way, my supervisor called to tell me that a tornado had touched down, just outside of a small town and the highway I was on.  I had literally passed the town 4 or 5 minutes before, but besides the ominously dark clouds behind me, it was clear in front so I pushed on.  I heard one of my favorite songs, Avenged Sevenfold’s Nightmare, on the radio and saw a perfect 180 degree double rainbow (the second in my life!) and escaped the downpour with only a few miles of rain, which would last most of the day for home- it was a great ride.

I arrived at my destination unhindered at about 3:30 PM, but I still knew I’d dodged a bullet earlier.  I don’t believe the tornado did cross the highway, but it could have.  By the time my appointment was over, the weather had passed over, but was still all along the route back home.  So I decided to hang out in town until things looked better outside.  By the time I left, it was 9 o’clock at night.  I felt 5 hours would be plenty of time for the storm to get out of the way, and never bothered checking my weather app.  For those keeping score, this was my third mistake that day.
I am usually a fan of night driving, but this time, it would prove to be a bad idea.  Daylight Savings Time had just ended, making it much darker than I’d planned, such that I can’t tell what the clouds look like.  There’s no rain and very little lightning visible.  So I start the 50 mile drive.  After 10 miles or so, the lightning has steadily been increasing, but I can’t see any bolts or hear thunder, which means it’s far off, and mostly to the North.  As it’s not too threatening, I press on.  I get about 15 miles in, and the clouds start to drizzle- nothing that I even need to put my wipers for, but the lightning continues increasing in frequency, and the wind picks up, still blowing from the south southwest.  It’s perfectly normal to be driving along in Oklahoma and the wind just decides to blow you off the road, so that wasn’t alarming in the slightest.  Then at what had to be about 20 miles in, a wall of water hits my car from the South.  My wipers are on full bore and I still only get glimpses of clarity before they’re filled in by more water.  I slow down, which I almost never do for rain, but I felt myself hydroplaning, and the water on the road looked deep- we’re prone to flash floods, and this could turn into one, though probably not enough to float my car, enough to push it off the road.
So, driving along at 35 Mph, I make it another 5 miles or so.  It could only have been about 10 minutes before the rain abruptly stopped, but in that time the wind changed direction twice, blowing straight back toward me (East), and then switching to blowing towards the south.  That was when I started getting nervous.   Then, lightning bolts, now clearly visible, were in front of me.  For a split second, I see what could have been a funnel cloud highlighted to the northeast- and I start watching the skies.  At least in the day, you have a clear view of what the clouds are doing, and I just have to wait for an opportune lightning bolt to strike behind it.  It didn’t take long- and sadly, I wasn’t disappointed.  It wasn’t a full funnel yet, but it definitely appeared like a semi-triangular cloud formation, pointing down in a horizon that was otherwise featureless.
Now I’m very nervous.  My instinct says to find shelter, to put something between me and it besides my car.  I know the route (and by route, I mean 50 miles of straight, mostly featureless road), and I know that just a few miles on, near the town the tornado touched down, there’s an overpass where another state highway crosses.  I figure if I can just push toward that, I can ride it out.  This is mistake number 4, maybe 5 if you count not turning around when it started getting worse; 6 if you count trying to come back that night at all.  I’ll go with 6.
So, I make it to the overpass uneventfully, but I keep watching that-spot-in-the-sky-where-I-saw-what-might’ve-been-a-funnel-cloud-forming.
And then I just wait.  The rain had returned, the wind had changed directions a few more times, and it was moving fast enough to blow the rain sideways.
I remember thinking, wouldn’t this bridge make a sort of funnel?  I knew tornados were often very wide- larger than the bridge in every dimension- but I figured, at least with cover, I’d have a better shot.  After all, the vacuum is above you, so you should get pulled up, mostly, right?  I waited, hoping things would get better.  They got worse, but I just kept alternately listening to the radio and listening for the sound a tornado makes.  I’ve been told it sounds like a train blasting by, a high pitched roar.  I figured, if I heard it, I’d get out and hide under the car.  I spent some time in the back seat, belted in as well.  I had no idea what to do, and was mostly trying to occupy myself by thinking I was doing something useful.  The bridge was number 7, the bit about the vacuum, while not entirely wrong, was 8.
After an hour, things weren’t getting better, and I was going to risk it.  I wasn’t going to spend all night in the car.  Press on, like I’ve been trained.  So I did.  I was a little more than halfway home, and made it without further incident.
I found out this morning not only is what I did a bad idea, it may well be the worst.  Well, OK, not worst- standing atop the bridge holding a metal golf club aloft after attaching my entire zipper collection to my metal suit while soaking in a vat of lighter fluid and smoking crystal meth would be worse, but a car is a deathtrap in a tornado, and the overpass only makes it worse.  As far as tornado safety goes though, es no bueno.  The Storm Prediction Center of Oklahoma has posted a detailed and fairly complicated analysis of “Tornado Vs Overpass” behavior here, but I’ll simplify it (it’s about 25 pages long, so what follows really is a simplification).
As I mentioned earlier, the instinctive thought is “tornados suck you up”.  This is true- except that it does not only do that.  The funnel cloud, if one is even present, represents the center of a vortex, a low-pressure area, which is causing wind to swirl around it.  The general direction is up, but there is a huge sideways component that can extend “a considerable distance” (when they talk about half mile wide tornados, for instance) from the visible tornado!  The winds may be at their fastest at the edges, in fact.  Think about swinging a rope around in a circle- the tip is moving much faster than the base where you’re holding it.  This isn’t exactly the same of course, as there is no solid lever involved, but the principle is similar.
Second, the debris from a tornado (one might argue the most dangerous component) is likely to get snagged by the bridge, dumping cars or trees or pieces of buildings or rabid prairie dogs on you.

Most overpasses don’t have anything to hang onto if you are getting pulled by the wind, and the one I was under was no exception.

The best response in my case was to stay away from the tornado, of course- I should have driven at right angles away from the thunderstorm.  In my case, that would have meant turning around, and probably sleeping in my car, or a hotel room, in Lawton that night, but it would have been the safest course of action.  Since I insisted in driving into the storm, the next best course of action would have been, assuming I saw a tornado, to stop the car, get out, and run for a ditch somewhere a good distance from my car, and lie face down protecting my head until the tornado passed.  The reason this (very counter-intuitive) option is safer is because tornados lose wind speed as they get closer to the ground- and at the ground level, the wind speeds are zero.  The further you get from the ground, though, the faster the relative speed rises.  This is the reason to stay out of the car- they’re high enough to guarantee they’ll be hit with very high wind speeds, making you even more likely to suffer injury by getting rolled over (by which I mean tumbled like a child’s toy, possibly being picked completely up and slammed into something), showered by broken glass or trapped inside.   Lying face-down in a ditch is safer because debris is less likely to get dropped on you and you aren’t likely to get blown around, but is still a “last ditch stand” that should be your final, desperate option.
I made it home safe, largely because the storm didn’t generate a tornado at that time (as I said, it had earlier, almost at that very spot), but I did make a couple of decent decisions along the way.  Pushing through the storm slowly, until visibility improved, and increasing my speed to something high but safe (the speed limit) until I’d gotten out from under the storm.
Tornados are one of those instances where your “gut” will lead you wrong, and the only remedy is research- at least enough to understand your risks.  I have now (not too late, luckily), and hopefully this helps you if your ever find yourself in one of these situations.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Power of a Story

As humans, it's often said that we are social creatures, or animals, and like many cliches it's quite true, and fundamentally so.  But we are also more.
L. Buck; Borned; 1871; Died; 1934
Consider this picture.  I came across it while placing flags for Veterans' Day.  It's a simple, cement tombstone, with the captioned words written apparently with a stick.  The way the 'd's were carved, it seemed the person was used to holding a brush, and was probably right handed, pulling the letters toward themself, but by Borned, (which took me a bit to decipher), was probably an artist rather than a writer.  The artist theory seemed made more likely by the uniformity, it seems they took great care making sure it looked right, perhaps from deference, perhaps from lack of practice. It took me a  Puzzled, I find myself wondering, "Who was this L. Buck?"  The grave was half-covered by a bush which was being tended, the   Immediately, what comes to mind is the image of a steelworker, working hard for all 63 years of his life.  He was beloved by his family as a father and husband but was never able to scrape more than a few nickels together, and he died in abject poverty.  His one child was struck down early in life to a fever and his wife, uneducated and heartbroken, wrote what she could to commemorate his life.  She got the important parts.
I thought about it a moment, and realized that, this being Oklahoma, he was probably a farmer rather than a steelworker, and his death probably coincided with the Dust Bowl.  He died, penniless and unable to afford the healthcare necessary to survive.
Then I realized, why did he have to be a good guy?  He could have been a cruel taskmaster, driving his workers to their deaths every day they toiled in his fields (still a farmer), and he died, uncelebrated and unmourned.  His grave was marked only because his wife had sought solace in her faith after years in an abusive marriage from which she could not escape, and it was the Christian thing to do.  She lived off of his fortune comfortably, donating much of it to charity upon her death.
OK, there's some projection here, a fear of living a life without importance, and granted, some elements in my story are more convincing than others- that he was a farmer, for instance, and that whoever "inscribed" the tombstone was uneducated, and his death was related to the Dust Bowl, but none of them are demanded.  The idea that he is even a male is hard to justify.  But I dispense with the second story and return to the first, anyway- I can't help it!  It's a tragic tale, with a lifetime of accomplishment, love, work, pain, summed up in a legacy of 3 words, 2 numbers and a letter, a testament to ignominy.
One more story.  A few months ago, I impulsively stopped in at a garage sale here on base.  The family had clearly just had a baby, and seemed to be trying to make room.  They were a young couple, about my age (27 at the time), and had a bunch of kitsch left out for people to buy.  Perusing it, I was fascinated by these hideous porcelain shell decorations (similar to porcelain angels, but with a poorly executed nautical motif), being sold for 75 cents a piece.  Again, I began concocting a story- the couple, young and in love, take a honeymoon trip to the Carribean- yes, to Trinidad; I felt vindicated, as one of the shells was inscribed with the name.  Moved but deeply uninterested in the shells, I tried very hard to find something else I might actually use, but I felt compelled to buy something, even if it was just a token, to wish this couple best of luck.  I settled on a key chain, which they wanted 10 cents for.  I gave them a dollar and left.
Of course, I could be (and probably am, in all three stories) completely wrong.  That's not the point.
The point is, the desire for a satisfying narrative is very powerful.  We look for patterns.  We want to make sense of things, and narratives often do that better than facts, at least at first (especially as capricious as life can be).  I think it's one reason we sometimes find ourselves believing foolish things.  It's also a way salesmen take advantage of us- playing to our observations and assumptions, like wearing a wedding ring when they aren't married.  We just sort of fill in the gaps as necessary, and don't think too hard on them unless we make an effort.  It's easy to get swept along in the momentum.  Maybe I'll catch myself the next time, but maybe I don't want to.  After all, the poignancy of the stories seems to give homage to the hardships of our own lives, which we can't always make sense of, and make it seem just a little bit easier to handle.
So next time you find yourself filling in the blanks on your own, put in that little bit of effort and see how warranted your final version really is- maybe you shouldn't put too much stock in it, but you should certainly enjoy the story.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011


For the first time, I'm watching the movie 2012. A friend asked me to and to tell him what I thought. So I thought, I'll tell everyone instead, and then send him the link.
Very quickly, for those who don't know, the gist of 2012 is that neutrinos from the sun heat the core of the Earth which results in extreme tectonic activity. Then the planets line up and electromagnetic fields go crazy and everything explodes. It looks great, but is the science even close to reality? No.
Neutrinos, at least many, do come from the sun. They are weakly interacting, neutrally charged particles. They don't do much, if anything, for us to be concerned about- though they are very interesting to particle physicists for reasons I won't pretend to fully understand. As far as heating up the Earth's core, that's about as laughable as saying that doing push-ups will knock Earth out of its orbit, though at least the push-ups hypothesis is somewhat realistic.
Neutrinos simply don't have the energy necessary to do so, and even if they did, since only about 1 in a 100 million actually collide with some atom in the planet, never mind in the core, it would take a truly astronomical amount to actually heat the planet. Let's explain the terms before we go on, though.
First, lets start with what "weakly interacting" means. There are 4 forces, gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak forces. Gravity affects objects with mass, electromagnetism affects those with a charge, and the strong forces interact with particles such as protons and neutrons. The Weak Force only interacts with leptons, which includes neutrinos (and a handful of others), but it's extremely weak- it's quite a bit stronger than gravity, but with such tiny range it has been described as contact only.
Contact isn't as common as you might think, though- when we touch solid objects, we are really interacting with the electromagnetic force. Solid to us is actually almost entirely empty space. We "feel" solidity because both we and the objects we're touching are electrically charged- either positive or negative. Because neutrinos are neutrally charged, they can't interact with the electromagnetic force, so they pass right through.
Here goes- tedious (but fascinating, if you're into that sort of thing!) math ahead.
If they do interact, they've got a minuscule amount of energy anyway- between 2.2 eV and 15 or so MeV (Electron Volts and Mega Electron Volts, at 1 million each). An eV is an incredibly small amount of energy- 1 eV is equal to about 3.83 × 10^-20 calories. Even 15 MeV is only enough to make 0.0000000000006 calories. So, if the most energetic neutrinos were to hit the core, it would take 1.7 Trillion of them to raise the temperature 1 degree per cubic cm. However, since only 1 in 100000 actually interact with anything (contact only), we would need 17000 Trillion per cubic cm for 1 degree. To put that number in perspective, if it were in dollars, we could pay a half billion dollars to every US citizen (Man, woman and child) and still have money left over- 20000 Trillion dollars (which is still enough to pay for the country to run for the next 5000 years or more!). And that is just to raise 1 milliliter of the Earth 1 degree Celsius.
We must also realize that the Earth is cooling at the rate of 4.42 * 10^13 W, or about 10 Trillion Calories. Per Second. Which means, that, for the neutrinos just to equal our rate of heat loss, we would need 17 Trillion Trillion. Right- enough to pay every person on earth 200 times our entire national budget and run our country for 3 and a half billion millennia!
So, just to break even we need about 10^24 neutrinos coming at us.
Let's look at planetary alignment, supposed to worsen the neutrinos (already dispatched as an even likely form of trouble). The trouble with planetary alignment is gravity- all the planets line up, somehow magnifying their gravitational pull. While in the room with you (well outside your territorial bubble, at about 1 meter) I have about 0.2 % the gravitational pull of the moon on you. Not much, granted, but the moon is very massive. Jupiter, though, only has 5 times as much pull as me (about 1 percent of the moon)! And besides Venus (at 3 times my pull), none of the other planets can match my gravitational effect on you. And my pull is eclipsed by your car or your office! The point here is that gravity is a very weak force- and that distance matters ALOT. So, Earth and the moon are much closer to the sun than any of the other planets (except for Venus and Mercury), and their pull is negligible in comparison. Regardless of that fact, there's no reason for a planetary alignment to do anything more than cause a high tide on earth (it probably wouldn't, but at best that's all it'd do) and do absolutely nothing to the Sun- much less cause a solar flare, because solar flares are electromagnetic emissions- not gravitic ones!
The only thing in the movie even remotely possible was the solar ejections/flares becoming worse. This is problematic. Potentially, electrical grids could collapse as a massive electromagnetic field induces a current in every wire on Earth. We'd live through the initial hit, but without electricity (and without the possibility to restore it for years) we'd be devastated. That's scary- because it could actually happen. But we could recover. However, that would require an enormous solar flare (which has happened before) and a weakened magnetosphere on Earth's part. Possible, but not too likely.
There was one realistic point: Yellowstone is the site of the worlds largest inactive volcano. A very serious problem, and one we can do nothing about. A meteor coming for us, we can shoot down (or more likely, move out of the way). A gamma ray burst, we'll never see and will fry everything on the planet before we can scream. Besides, I'm handy with a handgun and a baseball bat if my kids or I get hungry (ain't nobody taking my food first), if we get to fight back to survive.
Yellowstone. The volcano- that will be an inevitable experience, worsened by being dragged out. We'll know it's coming and can't stop it. If we get a chance to escape, we'll die in the coming winter, or feast on the misfortune of our fellow men. It will be a terrifying and tormented death, which scares the piss out of me. But what can I do? It would obliterate everything from the Dakotas to the Mississippi river and beyond, crush the Rockies to dust and throw them into the Pacific, taking a chunk out of much of Canada and Mexico as well. The ashes would cover the planet, blocking the sun (and mitigating global warming!) and devastating all life. Cows (hell, cockroaches) would be lucky if they made it, and they'd be luckier than us. There's no way of preparing for such destruction on a global level- we're going to die or dramatically reduce global population, and we're talking 1 in 1000 if they're lucky. It's over, if Yellowstone blows. There's no way to prepare. All terrestrial life could end.
2012 was, as far as the science is concerned, a joke at best, and exploiting the conspiratorial among us at worst, taking advantage of the ones who don't understand the science. It reminds me of the Core, a movie from a few years back which boasted some of the most awful science in all of Hollywood history, actually provoking nightmares in yours truly (which I was still able to logic my way out of). Whenever you watch a movie that makes you question the future of the planet, grab a science geek and ask them what they think. We're usually thinking about the death of human society, when we aren't worried about getting laid (or leveling our D&D characters). My favorite (by which I mean "think most likely") is without a doubt the Yellowstone volcano.
Anyway, if only I had a nickel for every neutrino...