I would normally tell you that I don’t do physics. I got off the science train at chemistry, and earned a B- in the mandatory second semester of college physics. I am amused to note that hula hooping is all about applied physics, being nothing but angular momentum, but you can hoop without knowing the math, just as bumblebees can fly without know aeronautics. Incidentally, physicists are the only group of non-hooping people who intuitively know that bigger hoops are easier to use.
Today, I had the opportunity to practice more applied physics. I write about it here because I keep telling the story to myself, which means I have to tell someone else, and it’s too late to call anyone tonight.
I made a right turn from a stop sign on a tree-sheltered road, onto a two-lane, 55 mph highway, heading south, and uphill. My lane was clear to the north. As I straightened out and looked up the hill, I saw a grain truck heading toward me, in my lane, passing a passenger car in its lane. The grain truck had pulled out with plenty of room to spare, until I turned into that lane and cut his distance in half.
I immediately pulled onto the shoulder. The grain truck pulled ahead of the car and back into his lane before he got to me, and I drove on.
It was only later that the notion of the situation-as-physics-problem struck me. I drive a Silverado. Most of the time, I’m bigger than most of the vehicles on the road. In any collision, most of the time, I’m going to win, regardless of right-of-way.
There is no amount of seat belt, air bags, and/or crumple zones that will protect a driver in a Silverado, heading uphill from a stop sign, into a grain truck heading downhill at 55 mph (or more, perhaps, as he was passing). Even if the grain truck hit his brakes, he had too much momentum to stop in time.
The question then, is either:
- If I think I “don’t do physics,” how do I know this? or
- If I do know this intuitively (that getting out of the grain truck’s path was the only reasonable option), why can’t I “do physics” better?