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A PHYSICIST WRITES . . .

(June 2012)

Believe it or not, this is my 100th physicistís column. If you have doubts (and internet access) you can survey them all at www.petersoul.co.uk. Extraordinarily, Iíve just come across the short first one from ten years ago, on catís-eyes, reprinted in the current newsletter of a West Country IAM group: an unintended or intended anniversary tribute? Anyway, itís nice to know that hurried thoughts can have lasting value!

Back in July 2002, my ideas for further topics would hardly have filled another couple of columns. Yet right now I have enough jotted down to last me another year at least. One reason why the collection has steadily grown is that I often start the page with a mention of something thatís not on the list Ė which then takes me (and you) down a path I never expected to explore. And as a result, I freely admit, I have learnt a lot myself.

My original aim was to try to show how simple physics affects your driving and your experiences on the road, and how it can be used to advantage, improving comfort and safety for yourself and others. But looking back, I see that I soon started branching out! How is it that motorway noise sometimes carries for miles? (The reason has nothing to do with the wind.) Why are so many drivers apparently lax about replacing blown bulbs? (Iím not sure that I came up with an answer for that one, but Iím wondering now if these, to me, unnerving sights might be an indication of a generally unmaintained vehicle).

And how does the brain process all the information that the eyes take in, when youríre on the road? This question gradually opened up a fascinating subject for me: you too, I hope. My worry is that if you think too hard about it while driving, then (probably just as if you start focusing on how you are keeping upright on a bicycle) you are likely to crash...

I came to advanced driving quite by chance. In the year 2000, a friend with whom I shared weekly lifts had a nasty collision with a motorcycle at a junction (not with me on board). Someone, I think, then suggested that she go in for advanced-driving tuition. I watched, or rather listened, with interest as she made progress and eventually passed the test.

And by then I was keen to do the same! Certainly the effort was worth it Ė and would have been even if all I retained now was the knowledge that (a) itís a good idea always to aim to keep both hands squarely on the wheel, and (b) it is not unmanly to try to stay within the speed limit. But Iíve profited much more than this, as 100 columns have told.

All the while, my car has been a 1997 Toyota Corolla: good for ease of driving, but not so good for depriving me of the experience of different and newer models (except when Iíve hired them). However, Iím reluctant to change cars and face having to accustom myself to the technological distractions in a modern one. Especially as my Corolla has probably at last stopped losing me money by depreciation.

And sheís still a good source of stories! Since putting in the last set of four spark-plugs, Iíve twice now extracted them for cleaning. The first time they unscrewed easily enough, ending up rattling-loose, down in their deep recesses Ė but they then all refused to be lifted out. Iíve never had this trouble before, in 45 years and working on ten different cars.

Eventually I managed to wiggle each plug free. The only clue to an explanation was that three of the four sealing rings were now halfway along the threads of their respective plugs, and the fourth was lying at the bottom of its recess. I screwed the plugs back in and tried to forget.

The second time (last month), exactly the same happened. I realized that in order to change the plugs for new on a future occasion, I would need to be able to extract the fourth ring. As I had to visit my friendly mechanics anyway, I gave them the problem. They hadnít met it before either, but it turned out to be no problem at all: a hook fashioned from a wire coat-hanger was to hand, and did the trick.

What I hadnít noticed was that there was a further shallow recess, into which the plugs snugly fitted, at the bottom of each deep one. The sealing rings must have all got wedged in this, having expanded sideways just a bit too much, as they compressed when I first screwed the plugs home.

But why? I suppose itís possible that this particular set of plugs came with slightly over-size rings. Or am I applying more torque to the plugs than I used to? Rather the opposite, probably, as I age! Though I canít be sure, not possessing a torque-wrench ... I did have one, but I wrecked it by (if I remember rightly) applying it to a wheel-nut that needed loosening, thinking that the internal mechanism would lock solid in that direction: it didnít. Time I acquired a new wrench, I would say.

A recent contributor to my daily paper described himself as a retired mathematician. This provoked various comments: ďOne can retire from a state of doing, but not from a state of being.Ē ďMathematicians only retire when their numberís up.Ē And so on. Well, I feel similarly that you donít retire from being a physicist, especially one like me with mathematical as well as other interests. As Iíve said before, part of it is the way you think Ė for instance, always trying to work out logically what might be behind some effect that youíve seen, or heard about.

But even so, Mr Editor [of the Thames Valley Group Newsletter], I canít promise to deliver another 100 columns!

[His printed response was: ďYou think Iíll still be editing in 100 issuesí time?Ē]

Peter Soul

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