Too big to stop


Today, an “almost incident” happened in the local harbor.   A small sailboat was doodling around, seemingly unaware that a huge tanker was coming in.   The tug in front of the tanker gave the traditional get-out-of-the-way-you-idiot five blasts on the horn, and even the tanker gave another five blasts.   We all watched on the dock as this mini drama played out.  The tanker was windward (upwind) of the sailboat on a light wind day, and in that situation, the tanker could have blocked a lot of the wind for the sailboat (which did not have an engine).   As luck would have it, the wind didn’t get blocked, and the sailboat made it out of the way.   But it was a tense few minutes; a slow motion drama that probably scared a few folks in a few places.

A few things came to mind, when seeing this situation.

  1. Big things have large (really large) “time constants,” which humans have a tough time wrapping their heads around.    Tankers and other large ships, even modest sized ones, can’t stop on a dime.   A bit of searching turns up that they take 20 minutes to stop.   If the tanker in the harbor wanted to stop on a dime (or even in a minute), they simply could not have done so.   If that sailboat hadn’t caught some wind, it would have been smashed to bits.
  2. Big (and even man-made) objects can influence their surroundings.  Even the wind (or lack of it) can be affected by such things.
  3. People can be oblivious to seemingly large and slow moving dangers  (anything from zombies, climate change, to big, slow ships!).

Today, everything worked out OK (although I’m sure the skipper got a talking to, from somebody).  But the next time around, luck and the winds might not be in their favor.

This incident speaks to the larger problem of our world, and of our genetic programming.  Until very recently in our species history, we haven’t had to deal with such big objects and big effects, and we generally don’t have to mental tools to intuitively grasp the dangers in such things like big moving ships, asteroids, climate change, and the like.


  • What things have you seen in life that fall in to these categories, that you have personally experienced?  Did they change your perspective sufficiently to wise up?
  • Is there any way to train for such things?   Physically being exposed to such things; doing more math problems?



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