Our Whispy Thin Air

Candice eetimesWe live on a planet with almost no atmosphere to speak of.  Oh, I know it is a lot more than the Moon or Mars.  But compared to Venus, we live on the edge of space.  But most of us take what we have and think it is really thick.  We think of “space” as being ‘way up there’.  But it isn’t.

Our atmosphere is held down near the Earth’s surface by gravity.  The air pressure we depend upon is caused by the weight of the air above us.  But how thick is the atmosphere?  How much is really above us?  Far less than most realize.

Because the density of the air is related to how much air is above, the density changes with altitude because there is less air above as we go higher.  That means that most of the air is compressed at the very bottom, at low altitude.  How low?  Well, if one climbs a mountain that is 2000m (6,000ft), one is already above 20% of the atmosphere.  Climb Mount Everest, the tallest mountain on Earth at 8,500m (29,000ft) you can look down at 55% of the atmosphere, over half-way to space.

To get a feel for how thin this really is, visualize the Earth which is 6,371km radius on average.  Now visualize a radius only 20km larger, where 95% of the atmosphere lies below… if you drew a circle six inches in diameter with a compass the atmosphere is the thickness of the pencil line!

Let’s shift gears a moment and visualize the amount of atmosphere.  If one were to compress all of the air and convert it to a liquid it would be only a bit over 3m (16ft) deep.  That liquid would be about the same density as dirt or aluminum.  That’s it, 3m of radiation shielding between you and the vacuum of space.

Now, realizing how very little atmosphere there really is… one has a new appreciation for how little pollution it can absorb, including all of that O2 we are converted to CO2 greenhouse gas.  But that’s a topic for a future essay.

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Cursive Writing and Flint Knapping

candicecoverWhen I was in elementary school, I got very high marks in nearly every subject except penmanship.  Except, we weren’t allowed to use a pen!  We used a Number 2 pencil on coarse paper.  But somehow we were expected to have a lovely flowing hand perfectly duplicating the Palmer script we were taught in 3rd Grade.  I just couldn’t do it… and it caused me deep shame when those poor marks brought on disappointed looks from my parents.  Never mind that their penmanship didn’t look anything like the Palmer script either!

Trying to write cursive with a ballpoint pen as I was allowed to do in Jr. High and High School was only marginally better.  I also developed my own script, idiosyncratically changing the letter forms to make it easier to write and far easier to read.  First that awkward capital “G” was replaced with a block lettered form, then the capital “D”.  Then the lower case “f” and “g” became two flowing loops without that silly “knot” in the middle.  But still my hand would ache.

I learned to type in Jr. High, taking the class twice to gain accuracy and speed.  I began using the typewriter for most of my writing.  It was neater, easier to read, and looked more mature than my childishly poor handwriting.

One of my classmates held his pen in an odd fashion.  I asked him about it and learned that he had been having so much trouble with his hand he had been refered by his doctor to a physical therapist who showed him a technique of holding the pen upright between his index and middle fingers while his thumb came behind the pen instead of to the top and side as it did in the conventional pen hold.  This configuration allows greater force with less strain in the fingers.

I tried this pen hold and found it hard to write script with it… and then learned that my classmate had abandoned cursive for his own idiosyncratic block writing.  It was far more legible and easier on the hand.

Then I discovered the fountain pen.  What a miracle pen!  I could suddenly write in a lovely flowing cursive hand.  I retained my new letter forms of course.  But now I could write for hours with no hand cramping.  I used it for journaling and personal letters.

But I could not use a fountain pen in the clean room.  We use special polymer fiber “paper” that does not shed particles.  I had to use a ballpoint pen because the thinner fountain pen ink just smeared and wicked along the fibers.  I had to go back to block printing to make it legible to co-workers.

Then, I needed to carefully document my work in a patent notebook.  Thank goodness for gel rollerball pens!  I developed a new idiosyncratic block printing that allowed me to smoothly connect some letters.  It uses a combination of smaller “upper case” letter forms and traditional lower case forms we all learned in 1st Grade.  You can see a sample on an earlier blog essay here.

But, back to penmanship with old styles.  As an adult, I learned calligraphy.  I bought special pens with various tip angles and widths to allow one to write using various scripts.  I learned many modern and ancient scripts.  My favorite became half-uncial, a script that was popular in hand-copied manuscripts in the middle-ages.  From that, I developed my own script that mixed 9th Century half-uncial style with Futhorc letters to replace modern letter combinations, (e.g. “th” is replaced with “thorn” and “ng” is replaced with “nettle”).

From all of this work, I learned that scripts are based on the writing technology.  Everything involved feeds back to the script, the pen, the ink, the paper or animal skin, and the use model.  Many scripts were developed for goose quills and oak gall ink.  Block printing was developed for use with chalk on slate and pencil on paper.  Which brings us back to learning cursive in school… and why it should be abandoned as being no more useful to modern school children than learning to knap stone tools.  Don’t get me wrong.  I love calligraphy.  I just don’t see cursive as a useful script for school children as it was created for old style fountain pens most commonly available in the late 19th Century.  Today, school children will need to learn how to use a ballpoint or gel rollerball pen.  The best script for that pen is block printing… and we should probably do some time motion and ergonomic research into developing a new block printed script specifically designed for these modern pens.

If schools really want to teach cursive, they should combine it with teaching other equally or even more artistic and ancient calligraphic scripts using archaic pen technology in an elective art class.

Further External Reading:

How the Ballpoint Pen Killed Cursive by Josh Griesbrecht