Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Travel: Appropriate Modes

TORONTO, ONTARIO - If there's one thing a scientist or engineer learns that is applicable to life in general (and I would contend there is plenty), it is the concept of scale and magnitude. The Newtonian physics that one learns in high school works just fine until one gets down to the scale of atoms, just like talking about Congressional spending "pork" works just fine in creating a national mood and getting people mad, but rarely leads individuals to actually vote out their own Congressperson who "brought home the bacon."

The same concept of scale can apply to travel. Much has been written over the years about the joys of walking around a neighbourhood or city, including this recent piece in the Christian Science Monitor that started me thinking about the topic again. As someone who likes to explore even cities the size of (at least "old") Toronto by foot, I agree that walking speed offers the best possibility to see what's actually around and interact with people. But, of course, it's not practical to walk all over Canada, or even a smaller country like Switzerland. (Okay, maybe the Vatican, but it's really a city.) Just try walking to the moon!

I would suggest that the best way to explore a city is by foot, the best way to explore a county or parish is by bicycle, the best way to explore a state or province is by car, the best way to explore a country is by train, the best way to explore a continent is by air, and the best way to explore a planet is by spaceship. This idea could be probably be formalized, perhaps by saying that an appropriate mode must be able to take one over the distance involved in one leg taking at least a few hours but less than a day for the averaged-sized entity (cities as large as Los Angeles or Chicago or countries as large as Russia or Canada might take more time), but would take perhaps a dozen trips to really explore what could be seen from that mode thoroughly.

I suppose it's possible to learn something about Las Vegas, Nevada, Chicago, Illinois, or even Ellensburg, Washington by flying over it instead of walking around. But can one surmise the quality of entertainment in Las Vegas, the cuisine of Chicago, or smells and wind of Ellensburg by flying over it? Not without a good deal of imagination, and if one has that great of an imagination, it scarcely seems necessary to travel at all.

There's probably an engineering take on that phenomenon, too--call it the Glitch Quotient, Td/I, where Td is travel distance and I is extent of imagination. At the limit where I approaches infinity (an amazing imagination), the Glitch Quotient goes to zero, and the correct mode of transportation goes to none at all. Just don't ask me the units of measurement for the Glitch quotient.

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