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December 24, 2007
Volume 85, Number 52
p. 56

Science Friction with Bob Wolke

Heather Mull
Bob Wolke

A few weeks ago, I went to Seattle for my stepson's wedding. There were no direct or nonstop flights, so I had to change planes in Chicago.

Now, I'm not the first to bemoan the torments of contemporary air travel: canceled or delayed flights, interminable waits to take off, cramped seats, wailing babies, and so on. But might I suggest that the word travel henceforth be spelled travail?

This time, I ran into a brand-new confounding phenomenon: scolding signs.

Chicago's O'Hare International Airport is nothing less than bewildering. Occupying 7,700 acres, it encompasses four terminals (numbered 1, 2, 3, and 5-no kidding), and eight domestic concourses (B, C, E, F, G, H, K, L) bristling with 195 gates.

I land at Gate 14F in Concourse F. The "Departures" board says my connection will leave from gate 16C, which I quickly figure out must be in Concourse C. But where the heck is Concourse C? With eight concourses distributed among four terminals, shouldn't there be a sign directing me from each concourse to each other one? That would constitute a set of 56 signs, with at least one set located in each concourse, for a minimum of 448 signs. Not very likely.

Instead, I have to walk around searching for a sign with a big letter C on it, other than on the Cinnabon kiosks, of which there are many. Finally, after passing what seems like a dozen Starbuckses, I see a sign that says, "Shuttle to Concourse C." Bingo!

I follow the arrow on the sign to the bottom of a stairway. There, a man in a yellow jumpsuit tells me that a minivan will take me to Concourse C, which is in a different terminal on the other side of the airfield. I later find that the minivan zigzags across the airfield, dodging airplanes that are parked, taxiing, taking off, or landing. Hair-raising, but efficient.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. (A curious thought: If I get ahead of myself, will I get to Seattle before I arrive?)


Near the bottom of the stairway to the kamikaze shuttle, I come face-to-face with a sign that says, "This Is The Wrong Way To Concourse B." Now, that really gives me pause, both literally and figuratively; I stop dead in my tracks to figure out how that affects me. Did I ever say I wanted to go to Concourse B? No. So why are they scolding me for straying from the path to someplace I don't want to go to?

But then I start to think (as I have been known to do on occasion): Isn't this stairway also the wrong way to Concourses E, G, H, K, and L? And isn't it also the wrong way to Santa Fe, Kuala Lumpur, and the Sargasso Sea? In fact, this stairway is the wrong way to damn near every place in the world! What made them pick Concourse B? Was it because they had no room for signs about all the other places it's the wrong way to? Are all the other signs on other stairways?

I try to stifle my bewilderment and focus on my real mission by repeatedly muttering, "C, C, C, C ...," which elicits a strange look from a man who appears to be Hispanic.

Well, I got to the minivan, survived the ride to Concourse C, found my next flight, and eventually arrived in Seattle. The wedding was very nice, thank you, and I hear they're still married after all these weeks. But this trip gave me a good idea. (It happens, it happens.)

Suppose we ask everybody who makes directional signs to direct people only to the places they want to go to. And then at the bottom of each sign, in smaller print, it could say, "This Is Not The Way To Anywhere Else."

Believe me, air travel is tough enough, what with having to take our shoes off and all. We don't need a million warning signs.

Readers write: A number of readers have duplicated the energy calculations in my Dec. 10, page 48, column and have come up with one-thousandth of the result I obtained for the length of time our citizens' surplus fat would satisfy the nation's energy needs: They get about four days instead of 10 years. Rechecking my calculations, I find that I used "quadrillion" as 1012 instead of 1015. I regret the error and urge all Americans to put on a lot more weight as soon as they can.

Bob Wolke can be reached at

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Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2009 American Chemical Society


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