Once again: United Nations' dishonesty to generate media attention and financial support?


My friend Judy sent me a link containing all manner of interesting and useful information. Among the items was a report from the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology reporting on how the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research, the National Science Foundation and the Canadian Natural Science and Engineering Research Council has jointly funded a study to make your driving easier.

“Mathematicians take aim at 'phantom' traffic jams: New model could help design better roads”

“Countless hours are lost in traffic jams every year. Most frustrating of all are those jams with no apparent cause -- no accident, no stalled vehicle, no lanes closed for construction.”

Remembering that we are dealing with a report from a prestigious university, perhaps we should recall our basic  traffic physics.

The Basic Law of Traffic …

“All measurements of human/traffic interaction depends on your frame of reference.”

Since everything has a cause (except perhaps the big bang – which is never your fault), a traffic jam is a traffic jam regardless of whether or not you may be able to discern the cause from your frame of reference.”

First Law of Traffic …

“Any object in motion will stay in motion and that any object at rest will stay at rest unless acted on by an outside force or a lane opening appears just in time for you to race forward one car length.”

A scientific phenomenon clearly observable and repeatable by anyone driving on the 405 freeway between the San Fernando Valley, through West Los Angeles, towards Los Angeles International Airport.

Second Law of Traffic …

“Time contracts for those caught in a traffic jam and distance to your destination increases proportionately.”

Another scientific phenomenon observable anywhere in the planet where time schedules and important meetings are thought to be necessary for the orderly functioning of society.

Third Law of Traffic …

“In the realm of physiological responses to traffic jams: Bladder capacity is proportionately reduced by the duration of the traffic jam and the distance remaining to your destination. Accordingly, anxiety level is increased by the duration of the traffic jam, the distance remaining to your destination and the number of passengers within the vehicle.”

Here we must note that the physiological response to a police vehicle on blood pressure and anxiety levels must be ruled out  due to the empirical findings that tend to indicate that there are relatively few police vehicles in the approximate vicinity of a phantom traffic jam.

Fourth Law of Traffic …

“Accidents increase with the increase in traffic density and the increase in driver inattention.”

Duh! Yah Think?

Continuing with the MIT report …

Such phantom jams can form when there is a heavy volume of cars on the road. In that high density of traffic, small disturbances (a driver hitting the brake too hard, or getting too close to another car) can quickly become amplified into a full-blown, self-sustaining traffic jam.

“A team of MIT mathematicians has developed a model that describes how and under what conditions such jams form, which could help road designers minimize the odds of their formation. The researchers reported their findings May 26 in the online edition of Physical Review E.”

“Key to the new study is the realization that the mathematics of such jams, which the researchers call "jamitons," are strikingly similar to the equations that describe detonation waves produced by explosions, says Aslan Kasimov, lecturer in MIT's Department of Mathematics. That discovery enabled the team to solve traffic jam equations that were first theorized in the 1950s.”

“The equations, similar to those used to describe fluid mechanics, model traffic jams as a self-sustaining wave. Variables such as traffic speed and traffic density are used to calculate the conditions under which a jamiton will form and how fast it will spread.”

Once such a jam is formed, it's almost impossible to break up -- drivers just have to wait it out, says Morris Flynn, lead author of the paper. However, the model could help engineers design roads with enough capacity to keep traffic density low enough to minimize the occurrence of such jams, says Flynn, a former MIT math instructor now at the University of Alberta.”

A brilliant conclusion: you are stuck until your not stuck!

The California exception …

Here I must take exception with the learned authors of this study. Here in California, nothing could induce engineers to design a road with enough capacity to keep traffic density low. It is the position of the socialists and Marxists who run the California State legislature that people need to be forced into mass transit and thus anything which lowers the discomfort level of an individual driver is necessarily a bad thing to be avoided at all costs.

The model can also help determine safe speed limits and identify stretches of road where high densities of traffic -- hot spots for accidents -- are likely to form.”

“The team tackled the problem last year after a group of Japanese researchers experimentally demonstrated the formation of jamitons on a circular roadway. Drivers were told to travel 30 kilometers per hour and maintain a constant distance from other cars. Very quickly, disturbances appeared and a phantom jam formed. The denser the traffic, the faster the jams formed.”

Unfortunately, the variables in this experiment are virtually uncontrollable:  the driving ability of the individual participant, their ability to correctly gauge time and distance and, of course, the participant's attention and anxiety levels in trying to fulfill the constraints of the experiment. The conclusion, aptly summarized, is that people will be people, imperfect as they may be.

Enter the mathematical model … 

" ‘We wanted to describe this using a mathematical model similar to that of fluid flow,’ said Kasimov, whose main research focus is detonation waves. He and his co-authors found that, like detonation waves, jamitons have a ‘sonic point,’ which separates the traffic flow into upstream and downstream components. Much like the event horizon of a black hole, the sonic point precludes communication between these distinct components so that, for example, information about free-flowing conditions just beyond the front of the jam can't reach drivers behind the sonic point. As a result, drivers stuck in dense traffic may have no idea that the jam has no external cause, such as an accident or other bottleneck. Correspondingly, they don't appreciate that traffic conditions are soon to improve and drive accordingly.”

I just love it when researchers propound scientific theories in high-sounding language and then build mathematical models with graphical representations to provide the sizzle to their work. Also to be appreciated is the amount of funding that may accrue to these  studies which allows for graduate students to be employed to do the real work of modeling and writing the first draft of the mandatory paper for a peer-reviewed journal. 

Visualization (from the non-peer reviewed YouTube Journal) …

More money please …

“In future studies, the team plans to look more detailed aspects of jamiton formation, including how the number of lanes affects the phantom traffic jams.”

Traffic density (DUH!), you really think phantom traffic jams are somehow related to the number of lanes?

Laughing out loud …

Here in California, I doubt anything can be done about our traffic jams.

I wonder what design genius, using scientific principles, decided that the car-pool diamond lanes become lane #1 (leftmost lane) and force all of the other lanes of traffic to yield as some driver needs to cut across all lanes of traffic to reach an off-ramp -- or conversely, a driver needs to cut across all lanes of traffic to reach the diamond lane.

All of the scientific study in the world is not going to explain why drivers who are facing a clear road in front of them become distracted by a cell-call, argument, daydreaming, conversations with passengers or doing something else which diverts their attention -- so they slow down and produce a traffic bubble where traffic flow is actually unimpeded by, well, traffic.

I wonder if they are going to study the appearance of a police vehicle anywhere in traffic lanes or even parked by the side of the road? 

Who is paying for the research …

“The research was funded by the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research, the National Science Foundation and the (Canadian) Natural Science and Engineering Research Council.”

You are – and don’t you feel better that this important scientific research is being performed on your behalf? Perhaps the researchers would have been better served to throw in a few metrics linking the reduction of phantom traffic jams to the reduction in greenhouse gases produced by idling cars – to really ramp up their funding to the next quantum level?

For those of you who do not get that this is a “parody,” I would like to remind you that the continued development of mathematical modeling techniques of physical phenomena is a vital part of scientific inquiry and that the results of using such mathematical tools may provide a greater understanding of our world. My only caveat: be extremely aware that the results of models should not be taken as scientific fact until corroborated with physical evidence and/or the output of models can be subverted or misrepresented by the political agenda of the funders of such research. Even if this current research does not seem to be immediately applicable to ameliorating traffic jams, it does provide employment for the researchers and their graduate students who will possibly go on to do better things in the future. And that’s where we are aimed: at the future.

-- steve


OneCitizenSpeaking: Saying out loud what you may be thinking …

It is suggested that you view the more extensive study in its full context before making any decisions relative to the worth of this study.

Research Links …

Mathematicians take aim at 'phantom' traffic jams - MIT News Office

Traffic Modeling - Phantom Traffic Jams and Traveling Jamitons

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on June 10, 2009 (download PDF).

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