Sunday, August 18, 2019

Cat On A Hot Tin Roof

Aviation and turbulence are inextricably linked, and it is the rare traveller who has not experienced at least once that distinct stomach-churning sensation and overpowering jolt at 35,000 feet. Usually, the bumpiest ride is experienced by economy-class passengers at the rear of an aircraft, clearly the least desirable seat assignment for anyone susceptible to flight sickness.

Even for hardy types who are immune to motion sickness, or passengers fortunate to travel in the first-class cabin, being suspended in mid-air constitutes an uncomfortable, self-conscious if temporary, loss of control. The good news is that air transportation is as safe as it gets. However, flight turbulence can be both random and very scary.

Despite tremendous improvements in weather forecasting and predictive modelling, the arbitrariness of air turbulence is rooted in storms and rough jet streams at high altitude. Also, waves and wind currents propagated near high mountains can generate destabilising oscillations in the proximity of an airborne plane. Beyond aviation, fluid dynamics depicts turbulence as the rupture of laminar or streamlined flow of gases (or liquids) following a change in velocity, pressure and sundry factors.

To the highly inquisitive, turbulence generated near rough surfaces at the molecular or sub-atomic level can, in fact, enhance mass or heat transfer, whereby interface eddies aid material absorption or heat dissipation. I should know since that was my research topic. To the mildly curious, the transition from a simple steady state to the onset of turbulence can be  transfixing - cue a rising plume of smoke gently turning into a tempestuous vortex when the intrinsic kinetic energy reaches a tipping point. To the incurious, turbulence is analogous to a cat on a hot tin roof - the antithesis of a calm, stable or restrained situation, and it is doubtful that anyone would welcome the presence of such a manic feline on their home turf. Try to picture an unhinged partner in a stormy marriage.

In truth, apart from scientists who probe subjects like turbulence, designated by the late Physics Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman as “the most important unsolved problem in classical physics,” very few people pay much heed to this natural phenomenon.

Subconsciously, we tend to associate turbulence with disorder and negativity. Consequently, at a personal level, it is intuitive to seek order in the midst of life’s chaotic proclivities. At the macro level, perhaps nothing encapsulates turbulence more gravely than the tendency of nations to turn against each other. Generations who have lived through the nuclear age could be forgiven for assuming that relative global peace is the norm. In fact, decades of a cold, rather than hot, war between the world’s great powers has been an historical aberration. In the past, Europe particularly witnessed intermittent conflicts that pitched nation-states against their neighbours, culminating in two tragic world wars. Today, regions like the Middle East or Central Africa remain hotbeds of turmoil and internecine warfare that, mercifully, have not ignited a wider conflagration.

Outside the realm of international politics, the business world also experiences periodic turbulence that features substantial risks as well as unforeseen opportunities. Economic turmoil comes in various guises, most commonly in the form of a recession, during which dominant players could be caught napping thereby giving smaller, more nimble rivals the opportunity to gain ground. If business cycles are a fact of life, an unusually cataclysmic episode occurred during the Great Depression of the 1930s, when everything that could go awry went wrong. Protectionist policies, high unemployment, economic devastation, combined with toxic politics laid the groundwork for the horrors of World War II.

In 2008, the financial markets experienced a catatonic meltdown triggered by the implosion of the US housing market. Many have described the ensuing Great Recession as a black swan event. Aside from such an unanticipated, bolt-out-of-the-blue crisis that blindsided just about everyone, economic turbulence can result from deliberate policy miscalculations. Presently, the ongoing trade friction between the US and China is straining and rocking the foundations of multilateral institutions built over several decades. Unless reason prevails, rhetorical brinkmanship may well induce trade ripples and overarching entropy, especially if China concludes that the US is attempting to suppress its rise as a global power.

Rather incongruously, a state of turbulence can sometimes dissipate as quickly as it appears, if “the kinetic energy is converted into internal energy by viscous shear stress.” In other words, just as light follows darkness, eventually order tends to impose itself on mayhem. This suggests that human adversaries can lower tensions by pulling back and decelerating, as though walking through treacle, and wisely turn away from catastrophic headwinds.


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