Saturday, October 30, 2004

Chill

Things should be called what they are. This is why I have never been able to understand the idea of wind chill factors. What is it that meteorologists are trying to measure? (And incidentally, why isn't meteorology the study of meteors?)

The basic idea is that they are trying to factor in the wind when combined with the cold air to give you a sense of how cold it really feels, but to whom? And isn't wind velocity ample enough measurement of the wind?

It seems to me that meteorologists are trying to get me feel something I may not feel or worse, they are trying to tell me how to feel, all in the name of "science" and public safety. Isn't temperature supposed to be the objective measurement so that we can do away with the hyperventilating form of relativism?

Has the doctor ever, once, taken your temperature and told you, "It's 98.6 but that really feels like 104 to a person of your age." I didn't think so.

I would suggest that wind chill is like the countless influenza stories we heard last winter: stories that lead each news hour, designed to drum up a frothy mix of worry on what would otherwise be a pretty plain scientific explanation of grade school type of data. It's pretty hard to keep "Mom-and-Pop Six Pack" up at 11:00 PM when the weather comes on without making the weather just a bit edgier thanks to wind chill factors. The wind chill factor makes weather seem so much more dangerous.

But consider how silly this really is: it would be like giving a sports score of a blow out game then saying that the score really "felt" like it was a lot closer. Seems like a con, doesn't it?

"Hey, I was at the game, buddy, and I left at the half! Don't tell me it felt like a better game than it was," we would yell at the TV.

The fact is, water still freezes at 0 degrees and boils at 100 degrees Celsius, and no amount of wind chill factor will alter the physics of this. Wind chill attempts to glamorize the last thing on this planet that everyone talks about, but no one does anything about: at least until now, with the advent of the wind chill factor.

Aristotle wrote of the three things that make up a compelling story: place, action and character. Were he alive today, I am certain he would add the wind chill factor.

It's not that wind chill is pseudo-science, but that it attempts to make something subjective, namely how something feels, into something objective and measurable. Put another way, it takes attempts to make us worry and perhaps even surrender to the notion that we can experience the cold without actually needing to experience it. Had we wanted a "feels-like" scale to inform us of what to wear for the day, why not just switch to something like: "It's pretty freakin' hot out there" or "It's cold enough to freeze the kids I don't even have yet." Something more colorful, at least. You get the picture.

Science measures temperatures with a variety of scales but these scales are always based on some physical measurement. The movement of some heavy metal in a small cylindrical tube brought about by the ambient temperature surrounding the tube. Absolute zero is the theoretical lowest temperature at which all molecules stop. (This makes me wonder what the opposite of absolute zero is? Is it absolute boiling; that point when molecules are in a hyper-kinetic state moving at ever increasing speeds towards the speed of light when - according to Einstein - time would slow down. And if time does slow down on a molecular level within our bodies, would that mean we would never age?)

We measure time too among other species with the same sort of ambiguity as we treat the weather. Dogs age seven years for every one of ours. Does this mean that as human life expectancy increases, a dogs does as well? And who decides that?

I understand that this is a way to level the playing field between species: not all creatures live the same number of years, so it does provide some sort of common ground. Certain bugs, for example, may live only one day. Imagine! A bug who was born at 8:00AM would be middle aged by noon. Dead by midnight, perhaps. Seems like there's hardly enough time to divorce the wife, buy a Harley and go cross country, get a tattoo and some piercings, quit his job as an accountant and sign up for open poetry reading nights at local coffee houses.

All in all, wind chill is emblematic of the modern sensibility which wants to make us feel something, which ultimately is a personal experience. I guess I am just jaded when it comes to the weather because of this fact. As it is, I cannot now trust the rest of the news, so I at least expect the weather person to give it to me straight!

There is a perfectly good scale to measure how cold it is outside. I don't need to lose any more sleep, with the Flu outbreaks, terrorism, child abductions, anthrax and sniper killings all on the rise it seems.

Please, leave me the weather, and skip the wind chill factor. By my reckoning, this piece is a just around 900 words. Of course, had I written this in Old English, it probably would have felt like 9,000 words.


MB 2004

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