Those of you who have been reading this blog for a while will remember the rather dramatic loss of power I suffered as a student pilot while flying a Cessna 150 over the mountains between my home airport and the Central California valley. I mentioned in that post the time my friend Stan Goldstein handed me a note with the word “stoichiometry” on it. He asked me to go study up on the concept, which I dutifully did, and although it didn’t definitively solve the riddle of what went wrong in the little Cessna I was flying, it was an important thing for me to do.
Stoichiometric ratio is the blend of fuel and air that enters a carburetor (or fuel injection system). There is an ideal mixture of fuel and air at which an internal combustion engine is able to utilize the full measure of energy contained in a drop of fuel. When the ratio of fuel and oxygen molecules is imbalanced, the chemical reaction that occurs within the cylinders will be incomplete. Typically, that means that a portion of the fuel will remain unburned and less energy is produced.
Few things in life are as simple as they seem, and that’s probably why Stan wanted me to look more deeply into this stoichiometry business. What non-tech people like me often don’t know, or care to think about, is the fact that carburetors and fuel injection systems base their mixture on the volume of air entering the system, and not the weight of the air. But the stoichiometric ratio is based on the weight of both the fuel and air, and that’s where a lot of pilots get in trouble.
The trouble in River City comes about because one can have the same volume of air with different weights; air gets thinner (less molecules floating around in the same space) as altitude increases. That’s one reason it’s harder to breathe at high altitudes, as your lungs take in the same amount of air but fewer molecules of gas.
It is not uncommon for earthbound creatures to confuse volume with weight. I think of it, somewhat metaphorically, in relationship to tasks. As I write this, I have about 30 Word documents open at the bottom of my page, as well as about 25 windows open in my Chrome browser. As is true for most of us, my task list is rather large—some observers say astonishingly so. But the stress doesn’t come strictly from the number of tasks required of me, but the weight of those tasks. The weight consists of deadline pressure, a parent anxiously waiting for a report, an editor waiting for a piece, an insurance company posing a billing deadline, the difficulty of the task itself, or even the level of pleasure derived from that task. The volume of aversive tasks may be small, but if the weight of the tasks are large my suffering increases. On the other hand, I do have quite a lot of rose bushes to trim before the end of February, but it is a meditative and pleasurable task. Here, the stoichiometric ratio is in my favor.
The stoichiometric ratio as applied to life in general can be compared to the notion of eustress versus distress. Stress itself is simply running lean of peak. When we stress ourselves, our immune system goes into overdrive and repairs damaged tissue, occasionally making it stronger than it was before. Broken bones are often cited as an example, but the most obvious one is lifting weights. Eustress is the kind of stress that is good for us, and distress is the bad kind. But they are both stress, and the only difference between the two is often the way we think about them.
Rowing upstream can cause distress or eustress, depending on our point of view. Flying an airplane can be a source of distress if we spend the entire flight worrying about the cylinder head that is running too cool, or a source of eustress as we marvel at how well our engine works on just 3 cylinders. The test coming up can be a source of distress if our worry about passing it has to do with seeing ourselves as incompetent, or a source of eustress if we see it a great opportunity to show off how much we have learned.
When my little 100 horsepower engine desperately gasped for air above the mountains, the rpm dropped and there was nothing I could do but lower the nose and find thicker air below me. The fact that there was a hostile mountain waiting to greet me just below was a great source of distress at the time. Leaning the mixture didn’t do the trick at the time, because there just weren’t enough molecules in the air at my altitude. Yet, the lessons learned, due in large part to Stan’s single word written on a scrap of paper, have led to a deeper understanding that it matters less how many things one takes on than the gravity of the tasks. Perhaps I will trim the roses today, but only after I get that damn report finished.