What causes a flat tire? Often, something where it shouldn’t be: a nail in the driveway instead of a house, a glass shard on the road instead of I.M. Pei’s pyramid at the Louvre, a staple gracing the garage floor instead of binding an academic paper that no one will ever read.
What caused these flat tires? A rose thorn—a thorn wielded by a six-year-old so delighted by the liberation of compressed air that the victims included two 20-inch tires, a 24-inch tire and a 700×38 tire.
Four tires flattened without unscrewing a single valve cap, let alone manipulating schrader and presta valves.
And, it should be mentioned, four tires flattened without malice. In angry times, it’s a healthy counterbalance to note the absence of malice whenever it appears, to focus on it, to marvel at it.
This is not the work of an anarchist; this is the work of a scientist, experimenting with tool making, material science and aerodynamics.
Pop. Pop. Pop.
The scientist, when questioned about the utility of the experiment’s early results, assured an older, more experienced colleague that a bicycle pump would quickly restore the tires to their pre-thorn state, a certainty born of observation, of watching that same colleage employ the pump, time after time, to put air into the tire.
It must have been a surprise to learn that the pump wouldn’t work in the case of these four tires. But you have to imagine that six-year-olds go from one surprise to another, surprises coming in faster at that age than they ever will again.
Sigh. Sigh. Sigh.
Observation, after all, does not necessarily result in understanding. You travel to Chicago to see an original painting of Nan Wood Graham and Byron Henry McKeeby. You’ve been aware of it your whole life. But even with close observation, you have no greater understanding of Graham or McKeeby, stenography or dentistry.
The painting, American Gothic, shows only so much, and your friends argue that the models’ biographies and occupations aren’t important. But if people and what they do aren’t important, what about the painting is significant? The house? The second-story window? The pitchfork?
You look and wonder. Why do we return to this painting throughout our lives? What lends authority to these old brush strokes from the thirties? Why is the painting so utterly unitedstatesian? Opinions vary, but that’s all they are: opinions. There are no certainties save this: a painting’s truths are not amenable to experimentation.
Art is not an inner tube.
Observation led our young scientist to believe that a bicycle pump always returns flat tires to an inflated state. Experimentation, followed by consultation, revealed the truth: a rose thorn will pierce an unseen inner tube, creating a hole that lets air escape faster than the pump can replace it. Moreover, such holes do not magically disappear. They endure. And their endurance can only be ended by patching or replacing inner tubes.
The mind of the scientist expanded. The door of the bicycle shop opened.
No doubt both are parts of a larger picture.