The Sensation of Pressure

We feel pressure on our skin, when we place our hand over the outlet of a bicycle pump, for example, as a kind of springy push. Actually, pressure is the summed bombardments of thousands of molecules of air, whizzing about in random directions (as opposed to a wind, where the molecules predominantly flow in one particular direction). If you hold your palm up to a high wind you feel the equivalent of pressure - bombardment of molecules. The molecules in a confined space, say, the interior of a well-pumped bicycle tyre, press outwards on the walls of the tyre with a force proportional to the number of molecules in the tyre and to the temperature. At any temperature higher than -275°C (the lowest possible temperature, corresponding to complete motionlessness of molecules), the molecules are in continuous random motion, bouncing off each other like billiard balls. They don't only bounce off each other, they bounce off the inside walls of the tyre - and the walls of the tyre 'feel' it as pressure. As an additional effect, the hotter the air, the faster the molecules rush about (that's what temperature means), so the pressure of a given volume of air goes up when you heat it. By the same token, the temperature of a given quantity of air goes up when you compress it, i.e. raise the pressure by reducing the volume.

Sound waves are waves of oscillating local pressure change. The total pressure in, say, a sealed room is determined by the number of molecules in the room and the temperature, and these numbers don't change in the short term. On average, every cubic centimetre in the room will have the same number of molecules as every other cubic centimetre, and therefore the same pressure. But this doesn't stop there being local variations in pressure. Cubic centimetre A may experience a momentary rise in pressure at the expense of cubic centimetre B, which has temporarily donated some molecules to it. The increased pressure in A will tend to push molecules back to B and redress the balance. On the much larger scale of geography, this is what winds are - flows of air from high-pressure areas to low-pressure areas. On a smaller scale sounds can be understood in this way, but they are not winds because they oscillate backwards and forwards very fast.

If a tuning fork is struck in the middle of a room, the vibration disturbs the local molecules of air, causing them to bump into neighbouring molecules of air. The tuning fork vibrates back and forth at a particular frequency, causing ripples of disturbance to propagate outwards in all directions as a series of expanding shells. Each wavefront is a zone of increased pressure, with a zone of decreased pressure following in its wake. Then the next wavefront comes, after an interval determined by the rate at which the tuning fork is vibrating. If you stick a tiny, very fast-acting barometer anywhere in the room, the barometer needle will swing up and down as each wavefront passes over it. The rate at which the barometer needle oscillates is the frequency of the sound. A fastacting barometer is exactly what a vertebrate ear is. The eardrum moves in and out under the changing pressures that hit it. The eardrum is connected (via three tiny bones, the famous hammer, anvil and stirrup, sequestered in evolution from the bones of the reptilian jaw hinge) to a kind of inverse harp in miniature, called the cochlea. As in a harp, the 'strings' of the cochlea are arranged across a tapering frame. Strings at the small end of the frame vibrate in sympathy with high-pitched sounds, those at the big end vibrate in sympathy with low-pitched sounds. Nerves from along the cochlea are mapped in an orderly way in the brain, so the brain can tell whether a low-pitched or a high-pitched sound is vibrating the eardrum.


Folksonomies: perception senses pressure

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Oscillation (0.964129): dbpedia | freebase
Sound (0.888763): dbpedia | freebase | opencyc
Ear (0.781584): dbpedia | freebase | opencyc
Vibration (0.775494): dbpedia | freebase
Thermodynamics (0.769544): dbpedia | freebase
Wind (0.713987): dbpedia | freebase
Gas (0.678443): dbpedia | freebase
Wave (0.645080): dbpedia | freebase

 Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder
Books, Brochures, and Chapters>Book:  Dawkins, Richard (2000-04-05), Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder, Mariner Books, Retrieved on 2011-09-21
Folksonomies: evolution science