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Carl Wernicke: Stoplights, The Universe & Everything

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WUWF Commentator Carl Wernicke

In these unsettled times we’ve all learned to seek comfort wherever we can find it. And, of course, with age comes wisdom.

So it seems perfectly reasonable to me that I increasingly find answers to life’s larger questions on the comics page of the newspaper. And recently I was reminded of one of those questions.

In the comic, a bus driver frets that the upcoming stoplight is sure to turn red just as he gets to it. But it stays green, and as he passes through the intersection he says “huh, just when you think you have the universe figured out … “

Interestingly, this closely follows my own experience regarding stoplights and the universe. Let me explain.

Back in my commuting days I bought a small car with a manual transmission. My daily commute, mainly on I-10 from Garcon Point to downtown Pensacola, gave me a lot of time – five days a week, both ways – to ponder life.

I decided to see what I could do to maximize my gas mileage. One technique was to pop the transmission into neutral and coast toward any exit or expected stop, including red lights, with the goal being to time it well enough to never actually stop. Because simple physics tells us that it takes more energy to start an unmoving car than it does to keep a moving car going. Or something like that.

Anyway, by preventing a stop and the required start, I figured I was saving gas.

But I quickly realized dark forces were at work. It seemed as if red lights increasingly would not turn green unless and until I came to a complete stop. No matter how slowly I approached, the light would stay red until I was fully stopped. And then it would turn green almost immediately.

At first I figured it was just bad luck. But as this happened over and over, I began to suspect the universe was against me. All I had to do was keep the car moving, no matter how slowly, to reap mileage gains. Yet again and again I was forced to come to a complete stop, negating the entire effort.

Sad to say, I never solved this problem, as I retired while still experimenting.

Now, I have to say that it wasn’t totally my fault. Driving in traffic is hard enough, with all sorts of erratic or otherwise poor behavior by so many drivers. I found my concentration particularly disturbed by the constant din of honking horns. But no one said doing cutting edge research is easy. I imagine, for example, that Newton no doubt had to deal with irritated pickers interrupting his research under that apple tree while pondering the theory of gravity.

Anyway, what particularly intrigued me about this noise problem was that the people honking their horns almost invariably seemed to be right behind me. This seems statistically improbable, but I’m sure there must be a logical explanation.