Snow and ice and the interface between science and common sense

Its a snowy morning in Norwich after an icy weekend and things are pretty quiet here at UEA. Also I have a massive amount of work to do on a research proposal, which is providing me with some strong procrastinatory motivation so this seems like perfect opportunity to launch myself into the blogosphere by recounting an astounding experience I had this weekend, and what I think it tells us about how science teaching, at least in the past, has failed the general public.

I was giving a good friend a lift on Saturday evening and we were going carefully down a quite slippery road covered in ice and snow. It was a quiet side-road on a shallow slope (that’s shallow by Norfolk standards; you’d barely notice the incline if you cycled up it). The slipperiness wasn’t really causing me any worry, or anybody anybody else any trouble. Except for one. A car, apparently stationary, was facing in the opposite direction to us (up the hill). As we got closer it became clear that while the car was stationary the engine and wheels were far from it. In fact they were spinning so fast (and had presumably been doing so for some time) that there was a strong smell of burning rubber!

The trick to driving in slippery conditions is to keep the power to wheels low. If the force that the tyre is applying to the surface is too great for the traction available (which depends on the coefficient of friction i.e. the slipperiness of the surface)  then the wheels will spin. When your wheels are spinning then traction is close to zero and furthermore, you’ll polish the ice under your wheels so the coefficient of friction decreases further. Now we could go into the science of this in a lot more detail, but I’d guess that pretty much everybody would have an intuitive (or ‘common sense’) understanding of this based on their personal experiences of slippery surfaces (whether in a car on on foot). Or at least I would have until Saturday evening…

As I was gingerly approaching the slipping car the driver opened their door into my path. Fortunately I was only doing about 3 mph so I managed to avoid crashing into the car door and crushing the driver’s legs in the process. It was a lady who was obviously quite distressed about being stuck (particularly, maybe, because she was seemingly the only person having trouble) and she had a young boy of maybe 7 or 8 in the back, so I stopped and offered help. Firstly I suggested that she rolled back off her little areas of super-polished ice and tried to get going where there was a bit more grip. I told her to take it really easy, not to put her foot down, to keep the engine turning over at a reasonable speed to avoid stalling and to let the clutch slip so as not to apply too much power to the road and to try to get moving. She appeared to take all this in and rolled backwards.

Then she floored it! Pedal straight down to the metal, wheels spinning, engine sounding like it was about to explode. I told her again that she needed to go really easy and be gentle with the accelerator, that spinning the wheels really wasn’t helping and that maybe she should try starting off in second gear  and she nodded and said “right, OK”,  looking like she’d understood and then floored it again. At this point I was beginning to think stopping to help was a really stupid thing to have done (I was against the clock because I was going out to see Hexstatic at Norwich Arts Centre later that evening and had lots to do beforehand).

By this time there were a few cars behind me so I suggested she put her footmats in front of her wheels to get a bit of extra traction (a really handy trick if you ever do genuinely get stuck) and drove on to get my car out of the way. When I got back to her car, her son was pointing out that it was the front wheels that were spinning. The reason he was saying this was that she’d put the mats under the back wheels of her front wheel drive car! Trying not to look completely exasperated I suggested that the front wheels might be the place to put the mats and moved them there for her. I told her to drive forward normally and if she got moving to park up on the curb where there was thicker snow and more grip so I could give her her mats back and she could then get going again. She got moving perfectly normally, and parked up on the kerb where the hill had flattened out. I delivered her car mats and she was really grateful for my help. I told her to remember to keep the revs down and just go slowly, she agreed, and I felt like I’d done my good deed for the day. I started walking back to my car. I’d got about 10 metres when I heard her engine start screaming and wheels slipping, she’d just floored it again…

A better person would have gone back and run through everything again with her, but I just kept walking. Had I gone back I would have been in danger of getting cross. Which would have been unfair, as the poor lady was clearly at her wits end with no reserves of ideas or approaches to solving her problem left. Now you might argue that this was due to ‘stupidity’ or reacting irrationally in a stressful situation, or just simply being bad at driving, but I’d suggest that all of these things boil down to what I would hold to be the root cause of her problems – a complete lack of ability to synthesize the information she was receiving (from her attempts to get her car to move) with her general life experience of walking on slippery surfaces, or driving in other conditions i.e. to apply what we might call common sense to understand and adapt to her surroundings based on her experience and change what she was doing to make things work better.

Now that’s not about knowing terms like ‘coefficient of friction’ or knowing the mathematical relationships that science has used to formalize the definitions of torque (turning force), friction, and the relationships between them, it’s about having the skills to think e.g. “this isn’t working. I can imagine walking on a slippery surface, and slow movements seem to have better grip than rapid ones, maybe I should apply that experience to my current situation”. As I see it,  common sense on practical matters is basically a scientific  approach where planned and structured experiment is replaced by random experience and happenstance over a lifetime and results are synthesized into general rules of life and specific approaches to specific problems, rather than a series of formalized equations and variables.

It seems to me that our education system fails many people these days in terms of providing them with the skills to look analytically at problems and solve them using common sense. It certainly failed the lady in the car. I’m not directly involved in schools so I don’t know how things are these days. I’d like to think they’re getting better and I’d love to hear from people with direct experience. My only experience is that of the new undergraduate students fresh from school who seem for the most part largely unable to think for themselves at all, or take any initiative when it comes to learning. Maybe that’s just a feature of being an 18-20 year old. I don’t know about their driving skills.

But if our education system can’t provide people with the analytical skills they need to be able to overcome a minor lack of friction driving up a snowy road, how can we expect the general public to evaluate competing arguments on such apparently controversial subjects as climate change or homeopathy or other medical quack cures. If the default position of the media and the public is to distrust experts,  and journalists for the most part aren’t prepared to take sides, even when there’s a clear right and wrong (maybe because they don’t have the necessary understanding themselves), then we must arm the general public with the ability to understand and evaluate, not quantitatively (although that would be nice) but at least qualitatively, otherwise our society is in real danger of collapsing under the weight of ill informed belief and decisions making at all levels of society.

The lady with the friction problem was supposed to be delivering a take-away pizza, which I presume was completely cold by the time it arrived, if it ever did. I improved my intuitive knowlegde of the coefficient of friction of rubber on ice and snow by cycling pell-mell into town to the awesome Hexstatic gig, fortunately without serious injury. Thank science for that!


One thought on “Snow and ice and the interface between science and common sense

  1. Mike

    With regards to your comments on education: I’ve found it interesting for some time that all children have one of the key skills that good scientists need, namely that they look around them and ask questions about how and why things happen. Most people seem to lose this ability before they get to secondary school and then regard science as “Boring” (which I’m sure for some people comes from peer pressure, some people in the class find it boring so they feel they must also find it boring)!

    Useful hint on the floormats btw, may come in useful before winter’s out! 🙂


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