Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Conroy’s Rules of Driving

Rule 15 - Put the cell phone down.
Back in the summer I wrote a post imploring1 my readers to use their car’s turn signals. Too many drivers, it seems, fail to do this simple yet important act. I meant that post as a (hopefully entertaining) lecture on good driving behavior. An ulterior motive was to express a frustration that I know many of us feel when driving, with an idea (read: hope) that venting in a public forum would somehow be cathartic and lessen my private frustration. No such luck. In fact, if anything, I’ve grown more vigilant of poor driving habits and consequently even more frustrated in the months since, and in that vein I’ve decided to list my rules of driving, highlighting all the many ways that we as a driving public have made driving less safe, more stressful, and indeed more antisocial than it needs to be.

Let’s start with a simple premise: driving is a social activity and as such it demands you, the driver, to be socially responsible. You, the driver, for the majority of your trips, might be alone.  Most of the time your driving will be for a purpose, heading to or from a specific place for a specific reason. You drive from your house to your work; you drive to the store to get groceries for tonight’s dinner; you drive to your friends’ house on Sunday to watch a football game, or to take your kids to sports practice, or to pick someone up from a school event. In other words, most of the time, for all the myriad reasons you go from one place to another, your trips are very personal and individual. This is true, certainly, but seeing driving in this light can lead to a perspective where you view your trips (and the goals that those trips serve) as of paramount importance, and that everyone else on the road is an obstacle in your way, delaying your trip, making your life harder. Such thinking is abetted by the fact that so many of us drive in a “car cocoon” as I like to term it, windows up, radio on, cut off from all the other drivers in their car cocoons. The other drivers become mere abstractions, unknown and barely glimpsed.

It’s this kind of perspective, I believe, that leads to so many of the bad driving behaviors that, well, drive all of us up a wall. How many times have you heard someone say that drivers from fill-in-the-blank2 are terrible? This lament is universal (at least in the U.S.) because we all see so much bad driving every day. When we envision ourselves, individually, in our car as the central and most important person on the road, it leads to a disregard of other drivers, to laziness in our driving, and to rationalizing away our bad behaviors. It’s why so often the rules of the road seem to have been never learned, forgotten, or ignored. You must fight this thinking. You must be responsible to other drivers on the road. Understand that we all share the road; that we all agree to follow rules that make everyone’s trip as orderly and safe as possible; that driving is a privilege earned – you must earn your driver’s license – and that privilege comes with a responsibility to yourself, to the passengers in your car, and to everyone else on the road. We all benefit from driving responsibly. This is the same type of responsibility that leads you to throw your trash into cans instead of hurling it into the gutter, or pay for the things you want instead of stealing them, or to respect the personal freedoms of others. It’s the type of responsibility that makes modern society work.

So keeping this perspective in mind, onto the rules.

[As I get to this list of Conroy’s Rules of Driving, know that while I’m declaring myself a crusader for good driving, I know that the history of crusaders is full of hot air and hypocrisy. So be it, I might not be a saint of the road, but I’ll still champion the cause.]

Conroy’s Rules of Driving

1. Be aware. This may seem obvious, but checking your mirrors, being alert to what’s happening behind you and in the road some distance ahead, looking around as you approach an intersection, just being aware of the general road situation around you. All of this is supposed to be second nature for experienced drivers, but I get the sense it isn’t based on the many rules below that aren’t being followed. One of the primary reasons is that far too many people drive distracted and as a result do not give their primary attention where it belongs, to driving. Too many drivers are on autopilot.

2. Use your turn signal. I already went into this in great detail in my earlier post, but the general idea is to use your turn signal any time you change lanes or make a turn so that the other drivers around you know what you’re intending to do.

3. Be considerate about merging. We’ve all been there, you need to merge out of your lane and into the next lane for any of a number of valid reasons. Yet the stubborn driver in the next lane won’t let you in. As if he/she owns that plot of road or driving is some sort of competitive activity and letting you in front is ceding an advantage (like you’re getting the better of them). And I suspect that many (or most) of us on occasion have been pretty inconsiderate in not letting a driver merge in front of us. Get over it, we’re living in a society, let the driver merge. Letting a car in front of you makes no difference in your trip, but it does make overall traffic flow better.

On the flip side, it’s also a merger’s responsibility to maneuver in a timely fashion. There’s nothing more frustrating than seeing a driver continue in a lane that is closed a short distance ahead with the expectation that they can merge out of the lane at the last possible moment. Waiting till the last opportunity to merge just causes worse congestion at the merge point and slows everyone down overall. Do everyone a favor and merge (using your turn signal) earlier than at the last possible moment.

And a final piece of advice, please give a thank you wave to anyone who lets you merge in front of them. It's an easy, common courtesy, and it humanizes the whole driving experience; it gets you out of your car cocoon for just a moment.

4. Obey traffic signs. My day job as a transportation engineer has taught me that there is an awful lot of thought that goes into every traffic sign put on the road. All of this effort is needed to ensure a simple outcome: provide clear and consistent direction to drivers to improve overall traffic operations. If you ignore or flout these signs, you’re making traffic worse for everyone else. A good example is disobeying the NO LEFT TURN sign. Often these signs apply during specific time periods, say, rush hours, to eliminate left turns at intersections in conditions where traffic is heavy and left turns are difficult and/or dangerous. If you decide you’re going to make a left turn at an intersection where a NO LEFT TURN sign is in place, you’ll just end up backing up traffic behind you as you likely wait for an extended period for a gap in opposing traffic that allows a turn (often when the light turns red and opposing traffic stops). This is a cardinal example of bad behavior. You’ve decided that your trip is so much more important that everyone else’s that you can ignore a rule that right’s there in front of you in black and white3 – and actively delay a lot of other drivers in the process.

5. Use your lights. If it’s getting dark (or not yet light), or raining, or foggy, or any other situation where conditions are a bit adverse, turn on your lights. The purpose here is as much to let other drivers know you’re there as it is to allow you to see well. In any case, it makes the road safer for you and everyone else.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Long Journey of Voyager 1

Voyager 1 (artist depiction)
Mankind is about the leave the solar system. Well, sort of anyway. Voyager 1, the space probe launched by NASA over 35 years ago, has reached a point in space about 18.5 billion miles from the sun, give or take. NASA, which still monitors and communicates with the probe, announced earlier this week that Voyager 1 has entered a region of space called the “magnetic highway” a boundary area where highly charged particles from deep space interact with solar particles. This region is very close to what’s been termed the heliopause, the very outside edge of the heliosphere, which is (the heliosphere) the bubble of space where the Sun’s solar wind dominates the background particles that permeate space. The heliosphere is used by cosmologists to demarcate our solar system from interstellar space.1 One way to conceptualize the heliosphere is to think of it like the solar system’s version of Earth’s atmosphere, which encompasses us and separates us from space. The further from the Earth’s surface you get the thinner the atmosphere becomes until eventually it stops and space dominates. Same concept with the heliosphere2, the further from the Sun you get the less its radiation dominates space until eventually its influence ceases altogether.

It may actually take Voyager 1 another year or two before it technically reaches interstellar space, such is the vastness of space, but still this is a good time to reflect on the spacecraft and just how far it’s travelled.

The Flights of Voyager 1 and 2
Jupiter with moon Io and Europa as photographed by Voyager 1
By a quirk of planetary orbital dynamics, in the late 1970s and 1980s the outer planets were in a favorable alignment for a space probe to observe each one at close range (they were all on the same side of the Sun). The relative position of the planets would allow for each planet’s gravity to be used to assist in redirecting the probe onto the next planet. This alignment was realized in the late 1960s and astronomers knew that this favorable positioning wouldn’t occur again for 175 years, so time was of the essence. Fortunately NASA, in the wake of the concluded Apollo lunar missions, took advantage and developed two probes, Voyager 1 and its sister craft Voyager 2, which would be sent on close-up flybys of each planet. Each probe weighed 1,500 pounds and was instrumented to observe the planets in just about any way NASA engineers could want. NASA launched both probes in late summer 1977.3 Initially, owing to post-Apollo budget cuts the two spacecraft were only going to observe Jupiter and Saturn, and indeed that’s all Voyager 1 did. It reached the Asteroid belt three months after launch, and approached Jupiter in early 1979. At its closest approach it came nearer the Jovian “surface” than the Moon is to Earth. Among other things, the Voyager probes discovered that Jupiter had rings and that its moon Io was volcanically active. Voyager 1 then headed on to Saturn. It flew by the planet in November 1980, just 77,000 miles above Saturn’s outer atmosphere. Voyager 1 not only observed Saturn, but its moon Titan and the combined gravities of these two bodies hurled the spacecraft (as planned) toward deep space. Its primary mission was over.

I was born just before Voyager 1 reached Saturn; for all intents and purposes, the probe has been racing out of the solar system for my entire life.4 More on this below.

Neptune as seen by Voyager 2
After the success of Voyager 1, NASA decided to direct Voyager 2 to Uranus and Neptune. Voyager 2 traveled slower than Voyager 1 (it reached Jupiter shortly after Voyager 1 and Saturn about eight months after) reaching Uranus in late 1985 and finally Neptune in mid-1989. To call the missions a success would be an understatement. Along with valuable scientific data about all of the gas giants, they provided gorgeous photographs. These are just the type of results that both advance science and fire our imaginations, exciting us to further explore and learn about space.

Both probes have enough power to operate until at least 2025. After that, barring a collision with some interstellar object, they will continue on into oblivion. Both probes include a Golden Disk that presents information about Earth and mankind (including audio recordings). The chances may be infinitesimal, but maybe sometime, millions and millions of years from now and many many light-years away, some other intelligent species will find these markers of man.

The Lessons of Voyager 1 for Deep Space Travel
I've always been interested in the stark contrast between the realities of space and the fantastic ways that space travel is portrayed in science fiction. The journey of Voyager 1 illustrates this discrepancy. Voyager 1 is one of the fastest moving manmade objects. It’s currently travelling away from the sun at more than 38,000 miles per hour, that’s over 10.7 miles every second. Even at that speed it still took it 32 years to travel from Saturn to the edge of the solar system5, a distance of roughly 17.6 billion miles. The nearest star to Earth is Proxima Centauri, 4.24 light-years distant. A light-year is equivalent to about 5.87 trillion miles (light travels at about 186,000 mi/s). 4.24 light-years is a bit less than 25 trillion miles. Don't bother trying to conceptualize this distance, it's far greater than anything we humans can relate to. At the current speed of Voyager 1, it would take the probe more than 75,000 years to reach that star (and to be clear, it’s not headed towards Proxima Centauri). That’s more than 1,000 lifetimes.6

I highlight these huge numbers to show you just how inconceivable it is for man to travel to another star system. The Apollo missions used the Saturn V rocket to accelerate the lunar spacecraft to about 25,000 miles per hour (Earth’s escape velocity). This is as fast as man has ever travelled, and had the astronauts been headed to Proxima Centauri instead of the Moon, it would have taken 114,000 years. In fact had Apollo 11 been on a mission to the stars when launched in July 1969, it would be about 9.5 billion miles from Earth by now, barely half way out of the solar system. Double, triple, multiply by tenfold the speed of human spacecraft and the time to approach the nearest stars don’t get any more reasonable.

I’ve written before about the questionable purpose of human spaceflight beyond low Earth orbit. But while I think this debate is largely academic (at least in the present fiscal climate), destinations like the Moon, maybe Mars, and perhaps thinking more fancifully, some distant moon of Jupiter or Saturn are at least thinkable. The simple reality of human existence and mortality demonstrate that no one will ever leave our solar system.

The overwhelming odds are that for thousands or even millions of years (or much longer) the Voyager spacecraft (along with the Pioneer and other distant probes) will transit through interstellar space, a virtual emptiness, passing nothing of note and experiencing nothing worth remembering. That’s no trip for humans to take and no place for humans to be.



1. It worth a quick discussion of what exactly comprises the solar system: There’s the Sun at the center with all of the planets, moons, dwarf planets, asteroids, comets, and miscellaneous other space objects that orbit the Sun. Less familiar, and well beyond the orbit of Neptune is the Kuiper belt, which is like a much larger version of the Asteroid belt. Beyond that is a less cohesive collection of objects called the Scattered disc, which is where most periodic comets are believed to originate. Beyond that are the limits of the heliosphere, including the termination shock, heliosheath, heliopause, “magnetic highway” and other boundaries that mark the progressive decrease in the dominance of the Sun over surrounding space.

Beyond these traditional (and very distant) limits of the solar system there other highly scattered objects like Sedna (observed) and the Oort Cloud (hypothesized) that do/may orbit the sun over very long orbital periods.

2. This is a much simplified analogy. In reality the heliosphere is more like a combination of our atmosphere and Earth’s magnetic field, which is critical in deflecting solar radiation and is a crucial boundary separating the Earth below from space beyond.

3. Voyager 2 was actually launched two weeks before Voyager 1.

4. In 1990, Voyager 1 did take a long range picture of all the planets together (excepting Mercury and Pluto, which was still a planet then).

5. Voyager 1 picked up speed after it passed Saturn (it stole some of Saturn gravitational energy), so it left Earth slower than it’s travelling today.

6. Using the biblical three score and ten years definition of a lifetime.