Driving Physics

Image: Cover art for The Feral Chicken of Clayton (and other essays)

(This essay is several years old and refers to my very patient and forgiving ex-wife. Enjoy.)

I DRIVE TO WORK. Thirty-five miles is the exact distance from the end of my driveway to the driveway of my workplace. Over a period of two years, this drive took exactly 35 minutes per day, due to the speed limit over the bulk of my sojourn being 70 mph, or so I thought. I recently discovered the reason my journey took so little time. It was because of Driving Physics. I will explain.

Physics is the science of explaining why something beyond understanding happens. It succeeds, because it uses mathematics as it’s language. This leaves most people at a bit of a loss. Attempts to explain physics using a written language almost always fail, and further attempts to show why the math works ends with hurt feelings. Expressing the incomprehensible ideas of physics with math, for most people, is like taking your car to a mechanic. When you’re done, it works, but you have no idea why.

Here I will attempt to avoid the pitfalls of physics, because I will avoid using math. I will not solve the problem either, but when I have demonstrated that a problem exists, and that nothing will solve it but math, a mathematician will be certain to make an assault on the problem, declare it unsolvable, and years later, using it as an example of unsolvable math problems in a collage lecture, leave it on the chalkboard. When class is over, a student arriving late will copy the problem, thinking it to be homework, and solve it with no difficulty. He may not be as handsome as Matt Damon or Ben Afflek, but he will solve it.

But on to Driving Physics. When working nights, I would leave my house at 10:25 at night. I drive half a mile to leave my subdivision, 3 miles down an access road, 3.5 miles down a 2 lane highway, at which time I enter the expressway. I have 26 miles of expressway to travel . Once at my off ramp, I travel 2 miles to my workplace. I arrive exactly at 11:00 p.m. That means I average (sorry- math) a mile a minute, because I go a total of 35 miles in 35 minutes. However, curious as it seems, the speed I travel makes no difference, as evidence will demonstrate.

The local parts of my drive remain constant. Traffic does not affect them. When I began driving in the morning, I wished not to be late for work (for a change). Therefore, I left the house at 07:00 a.m. I made the local part of my travel, but the expressway slowed me considerably, and I was impeded twice by backed up traffic. I arrived at 07:55. This became a dependable pattern. After 2 weeks, my old habits began to overtake me, and I left the house at 07:10, ten minutes late. To my surprise, I encountered almost no traffic problems on the expressway. I arrived at work at 07:50, five minutes early. I dismissed that incident as a fluke of traffic. The next day I left the house at 07:00, and arrived at 07:55.

At this point, the part of my mind that asks me to sleep “just five more minutes” began to kick the area of my brain that makes me get up. These two parts of my brain don’t get along. I know, because they vie for control of my left hand when the alarm clock goes off. The winner either turns off the alarm clock, forcing me to get up, or hits the snooze button repeatedly. But I digress.

I began to experiment. Instead of car pooling, I made my wife drive separately for a few days. I accomplished this by insisting we listen to Howard Stern on the way to work. After two days, my wife was ready to swear off men altogether. She consented to separate driving for a week. As we work in the same office, (that’s another story) the destination was the identical. She left the house at 07:00. I left at 07:10 and was waiting for her at work when she arrived at 07:55. This was repeated over the week, at which time I bid Howard adieu.

My problem, (all physics begins with a problem) was simple: How could I pass my wife, who left before me? She was slowed down by two traffic jams. These dissolved by the time I arrived at that point on the expressway. When not in those traffic jams, my wife drove at the same morning driving speed as me. I had to pass her somewhere, but where? The only place I could have caught her was at a traffic jam – which I couldn’t have gotten through myself, if it was there.

You see my problem now. No reasonable explanation exists, therefore it has to be explained in an unreasonable way, the way a mechanic (the same mechanic as before) will explain how your bill came to four hundred and fifty-two dollars and 35 cents, when he had quoted you 40 dollars parts and labor. Not that this has ever happened to me of course. I don’t even ask what the bill will be. I feel it would be presumptuous and impertinent for me to ask, as I know so little about my vehicle. Once, when I had my tires rotated, a concerned young man at the oil change franchise pulled me to the side, and told me my brakes were bad. He pulled me over to my truck, pointing, and told me to look at the state my ‘rotors’ were in.

I scanned the general area where my wheel used to be, and said: “Hmmm – yes. Indeed.”

He seemed unimpressed, and said I would die in a fiery blaze of twisted metal if I didn’t take action soon. I heeded his advise.

Since discovering Driving Physics, I have been uneasy traveling to work. I am concerned that one of these days, I will arrive at work ahead of myself. Once you attach physics to a subject, you can be certain that the impossible will happen. Mathematics, I am certain, will bear me out, even if it is impossible, and then who will be able to argue?

[Chapter 6 of The Feral Chicken of Clayton (and other essays)]

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