Years and years ago I read GK Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday. There was one bit in there that’s stuck with me since. I find that Chesterton tries a little too hard with language, but that does not remove the quality of some of the ideas that his thoughts can generate:
The rare, strange thing is to hit the mark; the gross, obvious thing is to miss it. We feel it is epical when man with one wild arrow strikes a distant bird. Is it not also epical when man with one wild engine strikes a distant station? Chaos is dull; because in chaos the train might indeed go anywhere, to Baker Street or to Bagdad. But man is a magician, and his whole magic is in this, that he does say Victoria, and lo! it is Victoria. (…) “I tell you,” went on Syme with passion, “that every time a train comes in I feel that it has broken past batteries of besiegers, and that man has won a battle against chaos. You say contemptuously that when one has left Sloane Square one must come to Victoria. I say that one might do a thousand things instead, and that whenever I really come there I have the sense of hairbreadth escape. And when I hear the guard shout out the word ‘Victoria,’ it is not an unmeaning word. It is to me the cry of a herald announcing conquest. It is to me indeed ‘Victoria’; it is the victory of Adam.”
G.K. Chesterton, “The Man Who Was Thursday”
Sometimes I pause and think as to how incredible it is that things do indeed go right. When I take a picture with my digital camera, for example. Every circuit and mechanism, from the battery to the sensor, the autofocus to the shutter, it all works perfectly. Every time. Every time I turn on my television, or turn on my car. When I turn on my car, a myriad things activate. In this cold, sub-zero weather, my car’s engine initially idles at about 2,000rpm. (Oh! Hai! Is that the sound of your eyes glazing over?) That means that the crankshaft rotates 2,000 times per minute. That’s about 33 per second. Nothing goes wrong. All four cylinders go through their four strokes to perform their function. Aspire the charge (air/fuel mixture) (down), compresses the charge (up), is slammed down by the combustion of the charge (down, power stroke), and pushes out the exhaust fumes (up). 4 strokes, one cycle. Over and over and over. Four cylinders do this (other cars 6, 8, 10, 12 cylinders are at play…) My drive to work takes about 40 minutes. The engine can run anywhere from warm idle (1,100rpm) to red line (8,200rpm). And… yeah. I tend to go through the whole range every day. From an inaudible idle, where I’ve to look at the tach to see that it’s at 1,100rpm and indeed running, to a screaming, wailing 8,200rpm. What can I say, it’s a fun car. But the engine, when the car is in motion, runs at an average of about 3,000rpm for most of the trip. That’s 3,000 revolutions per minute. 40 minutes. That’s 120,000 revolutions. The pistons have 2 strokes per revolution, 4 cylinders… that means that the four pistons move about 960,000 strokes combined on my commute to work. Then I consider the valvetrain… ok ok. Visuals.
In this video, you see two valves of one cylinder. The rotating things are the cam lobes. One side is a perfect circle, the other end is… an ellipse.
Each time that ellipse, the part that protrudes, taps the spring, it pushes the valve open. When contact is lost, the spring closes the valve shut as quickly as possible. Through one valve the charge enters (air/fuel mixture) and out of the other comes out the exhaust fumes (what’s left after combustion of the charge, that then goes out the exhaust pipe and muffler – and yes, the muffler muffles the sound of the engine or it’d be as loud as those idiots with super loud old, cheap cars).
And… yeah. Please watch this video to the end. Even if engines do nothing for you, you might be surprised. This is a BMW super sports (crotch rocket) 1,000cc (or if it was a car, one litre) engine. Your car probably redlines between four to six thousand rpm. This thing goes over 14,000. The liquid is engine oil, lubricating the moving parts to reduce friction as much as possible. The mist you’ll see, again, engine oil doing its job.
When I see that I think of all the things that could go wrong – but don’t. Every time I get in my car, or on my motorcycle. Each time I red line either of them. I’m astounded. I enjoy it. I revel in the improbability of the moment.
Then I consider the improbability of me. Of you. Of every stranger I see. And I order a coffee, sit in a chair, stare at the ceiling and I just am.
So the next time you come across someone staring at the ceiling, they may not be bored. They may silently be experiencing a remarkably profound moment.