Gridlock Beauty

December 11, 2000

What kind of mind sees similarities between traffic jams, the freezing of water, the triggering of avalanches, the formation of galaxies, and even the advent of life itself?

A physicist's mind.

Oh, those cool and crazy physicists. They can see poetry in gridlock. At least, I think it's poetry. At any rate, it sure beats seeing red.

So next time you're stuck in traffic — this evening, that is — sit back, relax, and think of it all as a matter of flow. As in water.

Two German physicists have found that road traffic is subject to the same kind of forces as water when it changes into steam or ice. This kind of radical change is called a "first-order phase transition" (I love it when I can talk technical). And on the road, as in nature, a first-order phase transition can happen abruptly and spontaneously, with no change in traffic volume or speed.

Ain't that good to know?

The beauty of first-order phase transitions — at least, in the eye of the physicists — is that they acquire a life of their own. Which is why, when there's a crash on the highway, traffic may still move slowly two hours after the debris has been cleared away. The "phase transition" flows miles upstream from the obstruction. And once that happens, the scientists say that traffic is rather like a block of ice floating in water just above the freezing point: It doesn't grow any larger, but it takes ages to melt.

We're talking chaos theory here, of course. And the best explanation of chaos theory is that it's totally misnamed. It's not really a theory of chaos at all, but of order within apparent chaos.

When free-flowing traffic spontaneously "self-organizes" into a jam, chaos is at work. Meaning, there's reason behind the madness.

It's that butterfly thing: let the creature flap its wings in one part of the world, creating the tiniest disturbance in air flow, and you can see major weather changes elsewhere as a result.

Yes, that slow driver in the center lane is the human equivalent of the butterfly. So be patient, be kind, and don't stomp on the poor thing. Remember that cooler eyes see him or her as just a force of nature. And if you get hot under the collar when the traffic slows down, try thinking of yourself as part of a block of ice waiting to melt.

That's what I tried recently, which is why I have to admit it doesn't always work. In fact, I found myself going into nuclear meltdown instead. Next time, I'll try taking the advice of that annoying bumper sticker that says "Visualize whirled peas."

If you see a green tornado descending on the highway, you'll know what happened.

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