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A PHYSICIST WRITES . . .

(January 2012)

Iím typing this on New Yearís Eve ... when one should be thinking of suitable resolutions for the year ahead. Someone on Radio 4 this morning pointed out that the word resolution comes from a Latin verb meaning to loosen or release. So perhaps I ought to resolve to escape from habits that may not be serving me too well Ė for example, a tendency to want to finish one task before starting work on others.

But shouldnít resolutions be aimed more positively at self-improvement? My dilemma is whether to have a go at things that I have no great interest in or know I am no good at, or to push myself harder in areas where I feel Iím already in a class of my own. By this I mean certain activities which other people seem either to be well trained in, or else to be doing only averagely (or not at all), with me finding myself alone in the gap in the middle!

Take driving: Iíve had one or two reassessments since I passed my advanced test nearly ten years ago, and I think I still drive more competently and carefully than most others on the road around me. And yet I continue to make silly mistakes, for example not seeing an approaching hazard as early as I could and should; or putting the car into an unnecessarily exposed position in the traffic; or simply exceeding the speed limit by some margin, before I notice and slow down. I canít believe other advanced drivers do these things as often as I do. Nor do I feel that I have the skills and reactions of some non-advanced drivers who tailgate me, or who pass me on motorways at 100 mph (or maybe itís the same people doing both).

Hence this sense of being on my own: a better driver than most, but not as good as some. I must confess too that a number of past columns of mine were written, in effect, to excuse and explain why I donít always react to things that I ought to have seen Ė the reason being the ways in which the brain works. And thatís everyoneís brain, so I hope I also said that everyone needs to be aware of such effects and to be looking around all the harder when driving, to compensate for them.

Well, that decides my first resolution: to pay more attention to the road ahead, the traffic everywhere, and the speedometer down in front. I particularly worry that many pedestrians and cyclists evidently have no idea how invisible they are to us in the dark if they arenít wearing anything bright or reflective. This winter seems to have been worse than ever for the numbers of such loonies crossing the road in front of me. I have also heard it said that with such a large number of (other) people sporting yellow hi-vis jackets nowadays, driversí brains are becoming Ďdesensitizedí to the sight of these. Nevertheless, Resolution No 2 is for Mrs S and me never to go out at night (together or in our separate cars) without having a reflective jacket with us.

Hereís another activity where I get the impression that everyone else is either more able or less able than I am (with apparently no-one keeping me company at my level): taking exercise! Iíve always been an energetic walker, and Iím sure I have read that you actually feel better when you are pushing yourself to walk at a pace that makes you slightly puffed Ė I certainly believe it. I even think I can comfortably walk further at that speed, than when going more slowly. And itís got to be beneficial for your general fitness. But I rarely see other people matching my rate of progress. They are either strolling or jogging ... I used to be a short-distance jogger myself, but if I tried it now I would collapse in a heap.

Over the last year or two, though, especially with having a senior bus-pass in my pocket (and the timetable in my memory), I fear Iíve walked less often and far than is good for me. I know: I should be striding on for a stop or two before I wait for the bus, and then I ought to get off before my destination. Anyway, my Resolution No 3 is to grab any chance or excuse for a brisk constitutional.

Talking of walking: the latest design of pedestrian crossing (the puffin family) has the red and green men placed above the push-buttons. Instead of being able to see them opposite while youíre waiting, and then while you cross, you have to look in a direction parallel to the road. Iíve read that the idea is to encourage you to keep an eye on the oncoming traffic. Also, thereís normally a camera installed to detect when people are crossing, and to keep the traffic lights on red. Well, thatís an excellent feature, but I do miss the sight and encouragement of the green man opposite!

And consider the driverís point of view: as I approach these crossings by car, I often find Iím just as conscious of the bright red pedestrian lights as I am of the green traffic lights (or vice versa, if someone is crossing). Am I alone in sensing a slight tussle in my brain over which colour to respond to? Itís another small hazard to be aware of, I think.

Surprisingly perhaps, physics is one more pursuit where I seem to be alone in level of ability: my fellow graduates of years ago mostly either went on to higher things or else dropped the subject altogether. Me, I sensed my limitations, but I kept hold of what I could understand, and was able to apply some of it (as well as a physicistís ways of thinking) in my career Ė and for nearly ten years of writing these columns.

But as I said at the start of this piece, I do tend to focus on a single task, so Iíve not achieved much else today! And already itís nearly time to wish you a Happy New Year...

Peter Soul

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