Stafford: Reflections on gravity and ‘relative’ humidity

Aug 18, 2018
Staff Writer
Tom Stafford

With school underway, it struck me.

If I’d started taking science classes a little later in life, I would have taken them a little more seriously. That’s because I would have taken them personally. It’s also possible that, at a later age, I might have been wise enough to fill in for myself what the teachers didn’t tell me.

Take gravity … please.

I appreciate the senior discount that saves me 18 cents on my morning coffee, but if I could trade it in for a 10 percent break on the force of gravity, I’d tip my hat to you – and maybe be able to look you in the eye for the rest of my life instead of preparing to transition to a career as a sidewalk inspector.

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I don’t know how many times I’ve seen that little cartoon showing Isaac Newton discovering gravity after getting popped on the noggin or awakened from his slumbers by an apple striking the ground. Just how he realized he was seeing something other than another volunteer for his grandma’s pie, I can’t say. I can say that, until that day, he apparently had managed to avoid being the subject of the experiments in gravity still being carried out by birds. Then again, his big wig could have been a protective device.

Newton’s sudden revelation about gravity could have been caused by the light bulb the cartoon showed going off in his head. If light bulbs actually had been around in Newton’s time, one going off could explain why he sprung up from the ground and went off to consider gravity.

I’m particularly suspicious about that part of the story. At my age, “springing off” and “the ground” don’t appear in the same chapter, much less the same sentence. Remember children, there’s a reason the saying is “What goes up must come down,” does not work the other way around.

There are other gaping holes in the whole Newton-Noggin story. For one, let’s ask why Mr. Newton sat under the tree in the first place. Assuming he wasn’t trying to avoid cleaning out the garage, we’ll say it was to take a load off his feet.

And that should tell us that much earlier evidence for the discovery of gravity of might exist when early humans, after finishing the wheel, invented the chair, for which the Neanderthal word was “Ikea.” Surely the creation of the first chair is to the history of gravity what the Big Bang was to the history of the universe.

Another fundamental lesson I recall from chemistry class is that in evaluating every reaction, we have to take into account the temperature, atmospheric pressure and humidity in which it takes place. The temperature and humidity that usually rise just as kids are going to school to do experiments, usually cause grandpa to retreat to an air-conditioned room.

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But in the spirit of scientific inquiry, this grandpa decided to experiment last week by dusting off his old inline skates and traveling a largely shaded path for a few miles on an only relatively warm day. Despite the temperature, however, the relative humidity was high – high enough that it felt though he was trapped in a small, dark closet next to a furnace with his many relatives.

An observer going along with grandpa would have noted the sometimes labored breathing, the regular stream of sweat despite a wind that helped to evaporate same. Later in the skate, the observer might have seen a wobbliness of ankles and the single time this led grandpa to skate off the trail, plunge into the dirt and narrowly miss the wire fence on his right.

But those who instead stayed behind in the shade of the apple tree with Sir Isaac Newton would have been able to conduct a more telling experiment that might have been reported this way.

Whereas, when the subject was standing downwind from the tree, the day seemed pleasant, cool and temperate, when the subject was standing uphill from the tree, the apples that seemed more quickly to fall from the tree had soft, black flesh rather than the sweet reddish flesh heretofore observed on them.

Conclusion: The subject apparently had been exposed to the conditions associated with being sequestered with all of his relatives in a small room next to a burning furnace. In short, the relative humidity was remarkably high.