Posted on

Storm In A Teacup

Storm in a Teacup. The Physics of Everyday Life by Helen Czerski. Let’s see what she’s talking about.

What goes up must come down. A moment in time. Why don’t ducks get cold feet? Spoons, spirals, and Sputnik. When opposite attract. A sense of perspective. Small is beautiful. Popcorn and rockets. Let’s do.. Making waves, 113.

All right. Making waves.

When you go to the beach, it’s almost impossible to stand for any length of time with your back to the sea. It feels wrong, both because you’re missing out on the grandeur of the site and also because facing the other way stops you from keeping an eye on what the ocean might be up to. And it’s oddly… Excuse me. And it’s oddly reassuring to watch the boundary between sea and land as it consistently renews and remodels itself. When I lived in La Jolla, California, my reward after a long day was to wander down to the ocean, sit on a rock, and watch the waves as the sun went down. Just 300ft off shore, the waves were long and low, difficult to see. As they rolled toward the shore, they’d get steeper and more obvious until they finally broke on the beach. I could sit and watch the endless supply of new waves for hours.

A wave is something that we all recognize, but waves can be hard to describe. The ones at the seashore are processions of ridges, a wiggly shape in the water surface that is traveling from over there to over here. We can measure them by looking at the distance between successive wave peaks and the height of peaks themselves. A water wave can be as tiny as the ripples you make when you blow on your tea to cool it, or bigger than a ship.

That’s true. Because you can make waves in your cup of coffee, but then you can also have a wave that totally engulf a Naval ship. One of those huge monster ships.

But waves have one quite weird feature, and in La Jolla it was the pelicans that made it obvious. Brown pelicans live all along the coast, and they look so ancient that you wonder whether they’ve just flown through a wormhole from a million years ago. They have ridiculously long beaks that usually stay folded up against their bodies, and small groups of these cautious birds are often seen gliding solemnly just above the waves parallel to the coast. Once in a while, they’d plonk themselves down unceremoniously onto the ocean surface. And this was the interesting bit. The waves that the birds were sitting on rolled endlessly toward the shore, but the pelicans didn’t go anywhere.

Right. Okay. That is true. All right.

Next time you stand on the shore, watch waves rolling towards you, watch the sea birds sitting on the surface. They’ll be parked quite happily, passengers being carried up and down as the waves go past, but they’re not going anywhere. What this tells you is that the water isn’t going anywhere either. The waves move, but the thing is… Wait a minute.

What this tells you is the water isn’t going anywhere either. All right. She’s starting to get a little interesting here.

The wave can’t be static. Oh, wait. Sorry.

The waves move, but the thing that is waving, the water, doesn’t. The wave can’t be static. The whole thing only works if the shape is moving. So waves are always moving. They carry energy, because it takes energy to shift the water into the wave shape and back again. But they don’t carry stuff. A wave is a regular moving shape that transports energy. I think this is partly why I found sitting on the beach and looking out to the sea therapeutic. I could see how energy was continually carried toward the shore by the waves, and I could see that the water itself never changed.

Waves come in many different types, but there are some basic principles that apply to them. The sound waves made by a dolphin, the water waves made by a pebble and the light waves from a distant star have a lot in common.

All right. Let’s sit there. I’m not going to read the whole thing. Let’s see where we are. Yes, because this is 20 some odd pages. I’m not going to… That’ll take me an hour to read it to you. But what she’s saying is, it makes sense. I’m trying to get where she’s like, “Make a wave,” but so far, it’s changed my perspective on things. So… I’m just thinking. In my mind, I’m trying to think what she’s saying, but let’s read a little bit more because if the waves aren’t moving anything, how’s a surfer moving? It doesn’t make any sense.

And these days, we don’t just respond to the waves that nature provides for us. We also make our own, very sophisticated, contribution to the flood, and it connects the scattered elements of our civilization. But humans consciously using waves to cement cultural bonds isn’t new. This story begins centuries ago in the middle of the gigantic ocean.

All right, why don’t we go learn something new.

A king surfing the ocean waves probably sounds like a snapshot from a particularly weird dream. But 250 years ago in Hawaii every king, queen, chief and chiefess owned a surf board, and royal prowess at the national sport was a considerable source of pride. Special long narrow Olo boards were reserved for the elite, while the commoners used the shorter and more maneuverable Alaia boards. Contests were common, and provided the central drama for many Hawaiian stories and legends. When you live on a stunning tropical island surrounded by deep blue ocean, building a culture around playing in the sea sounds perfectly sensible. But the Hawaiian surf pioneers had something else going for them: the right sort of waves. Their small Island nation in the middle of the vast ocean was perfectly placed. Hawaiian geography and physics filtered the complexity of the ocean, and kings and queens surfed on the consequences.

While the Hawaiians were chanting to urge the flat, windless sea to rise into ready-to-serve swell, the ocean thousands of miles away could have looked very different. The winds in massive storms shove on the ocean surface, dumping energy by forcing the water up into waves. But the waves in storms are confused mixtures of short and long waves traveling in different directions, breaking and rebuilding and clashing. Winter storms were common in at latitude of 40, 45 degrees, so storms would be to the north of Hawaii in the northern hemisphere winter, and to the south of Hawaii in the southern hemisphere winter. But waves have to travel. Even in the storm winds were dying down, the patch of ruffled ocean would have been expanding… Okay, let’s…

I’ve learned a little bit, but again, this is… I’m not the strongest of readers, all right. So, it was interesting that kings and queens used to surf and it was a prominent thing back in Hawaii. The energy with the waves, that’s interesting. Yes, being able to go through and read the whole thing and scan a little in more important things out of the book. That’s going to be fun trying to see where she goes with the whole waves and the energy and how… I guess we’re trying to tap into our energy. See, like the Physics of Everyday Life. So like she was talking about, we each make ripples.

So it’d be interesting to see what she’s talking about. Take notes and write a nice little essay and then explain to you at the end of it, after I read it all.