This One Time, 46

This one time I was standing on that level that overlooks most of the action at what has to be the busiest train station in the world and, therefore, the absolute worst place on earth to try to meet someone. I’m sure you’ve seen a picture of the main lobby area, or more likely even shots of it in movies, though I can only imagine how much it must cost to block off foot traffic and shoot there. You’d have to do it in the small hours of the morning, through it would still have some traffic even then, and pay to import sunlight from the other side of the world.

It wasn’t too hard to find a place to stand where I wouldn’t be in the way so I could look out over the floor and watch. The people here know where the views are and, if they’re in a hurry, which paths to take to avoid lollygaggers. Sometimes its as simple as keeping to the center of the walkways, only slightly to the right to make way for oncoming traffic.

I find it fascinating, as a man of science, to watch the patterns emerge. I study what has to be the most boring science on earth. Fluid dynamics — plumbing, to be frank — with a specialty of materials on the edge of being fluid. Sand, mud, high-velocity airflow, superfluids … and other related phenomena.

Down below on the floor I saw my science in action. Clusters of particles, a largely Brownian distribution, calculating the best paths for the flows based on analogs to the forces that govern particles. Instead of the Pauli Exclusion Principle and electrostatic repulsion, you get the basics of elbow-room modified by the local culture’s idea of personal space. Instead of Van der Waals forces, you get people spotting and stepping into any available gap for the purposes of that extra little burst of speed and breathing room. You get laminar flow toward the centers of the main flow pathways and turbulence toward the edges.

Based on the performance characteristics, I could backfigure these patterns to find a mix of physical materials that would mimic these flows and help model buildings like these. The only tricky bit would be that invisible wall down the middle of the paths where the fastest people bump the elbows of people coming the other way. Duplex flow has always been a bit of a puzzle, especially with fluids made of small particles. You always get interference from those poor bastards trapped in the middle between the two high-velocity streams, spinning helplessly…

Like that poor guy.

After an uncomfortable moment, he sorted things out and was sucked along with the rest of the flow.

Meanwhile, out on the main floor, a million random, randomized faces. I couldn’t possibly calculate how difficult it would be to spot a man I hadn’t seen since high school in this humongous pool of noise, yet I knew I had a good chance. The problem was distraction. I didn’t know any of these people, most likely, but I kept seeing familiar features. A nose here, eyebrows there, a jawline flashing nearby, and a face that didn’t even exist on the floor would pop into my head. I was spotting people who wouldn’t be caught dead in this city. Or who were already dead.

I defocused my eyes a bit and just looked for familiar patterns of body movement. The man I was looking for only really had two different walks — one a head-down rush with his elbows slightly out, long strides that could eat up the ground if he was in the clear. Here that wouldn’t be much help to him, so I imagined what it would look like with him bumping up against slower, heavier particles in the flow, compression waves backing up behind him as he wasted energy trying to go faster. His other walk could be described as nothing other than a good-natured saunter, which would stand out here like a sore thumb.

It was strange to look down on all of this and see all huge numbers of people reduced to heterogeneous particles in patterns of flow. I tried to take a step back from all that, and that’s when there was a kind of snap in my head, and I did see it all differently. Biologically. Blood is a kind of heterogeneous fluid, certainly, and blood vessels are the typical containers and boundaries, but this looked a lot more like cytoplasmic actions interior to a cell, where theoretically randomized action powered the picking up and dropping off of bits of molecules and moving them around to where they were needed to the next stage of mitosis or for sodium or ATP transport or for the ejection of waste and surplus. If you’ve ever looked at a living cell under a large enough microscope, there’s no way on earth you could mistake the fact that it was alive and moving with some apparent will, random actions dissolving to reveal a purpose.

Out on the floor was an enormous organism made of my fellow creatures, transporting the ultimate resources from place to place: themselves. And even up here, even completely stationary, I was part of it.

And then my old friend from high school was behind me, slapping me on the shoulder.


February 15, 2011 · by xalieri · Posted in This One Time  


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