[The following essay is a sample answer to an Oxford entrance examination question: 40 minutes, no word limit]
How heavy is the atmosphere?
Crushing; or lifting. While an absolute, the weight of the atmosphere remains relative o the person or thing within its midst. Mankind and all terrestrial organisms have become adapted to the crushing weight of the atmosphere. It is a sea of gases that exerts a downward pressure of approximately 14 lbs per square, the conveniently labelled “atmosphere”. Yet a vacuum-emptied aluminium can or plastic bottle is instantly crushed by the weight of it. To a deep-sea fish brought to surface, the experience is literally explosive. Being adapted to the much greater pressures of the oceans (at 40 atmospheres) its body cannot cope with the strains of sustained relaxation of pressure. It must be a rush.
Vital; or a nuisance. The atmosphere is an ephemeral peel on the fruit of Eden.
The atmosphere contains a mix of gases, which in the correct composition, that allow mankind and organisms to survive. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? It doesn’t really matter as Nature has adapted and draws sustenance from this soup of elements and gases. Man is limited to a very narrow band, as even a trip to the foothills of the Himalayas or visit to Mexico City poses as strain, leaving a visitor short of breath. Just as the Himalayan climbers feel, as they conquer Mt Everest and have a momentary feeling of exhilaration. Yet the vastly decreased weight of the atmosphere limits their ability to only stay 30 minutes unaided at the top of the world. Their mental abilities are impaired; literally light-headed. It is a burden. The local inhabitants have adapted. For the long-distance runner born and bred at high altitude, the thickness of sea-level atmosphere is an inherent advantage that she/he uses to strive for gold. While the atmosphere sustains us it protects – a barrier to unwelcome cosmic visitors and returning spaceships.
Scientists have estimated the weight of the atmosphere at 5.5 quadrillion tons. Heavy, yet it only represents a 1 millionth of the total mass of the Earth. How can something we cannot even see be so heavy? The atmosphere is a light yet effective shield that protects yet prevents us from motion. The early sceptics of railways in the 1820s felt that the train’s speed (and hence the atmosphere’s resistance in the form of wind and friction) would literally steal one’s breath away. The fight against friction and flight continued for decades. It is only since 1903 that mankind has mastered the ability to utilise the fluid characteristics of the atmosphere; shaping wings and pressures to allow flight. By employing the physics of pressure though lead us to glide and float; inspiring us to fly as well as reach for the skies. The vast majority of the Apollo rocket’s fuel is expended overcoming gravity and the substance of the atmosphere; winning release from the planet. The atmosphere’s increasing density burns up deadly meteors and returning space explorers – caveat dinosaurii and astronauts. The atmosphere is heavy yet literally inspires us to reach for the stars.
Inspiring; or a dread. The atmosphere plays with light. We not only see put can paint our rainbows. The sky is a constant source of inspiration and motivation, as well as being harbinger of fortunes. How often throughout history have we looked to the heavens for a sign? As the song goes: “I can see clearly now that the rain has gone”. The atmosphere of a room or place shapes and guides us – pregnant in feeling. A question such as this essay title can make the difference to a university place or job offer with a consulting firm. It becomes a substantive and weighty element in the balance of judgement. Sunsets and sunrises have been shaped by the atmosphere and its moods. It can be uplifting to the farmer (‘red sky at night…’) or inspire painters – classical, impressionists or even of a more modern school. The atmosphere can be foreteller of doom to the author as the fate of Shakespeare’s King Lear was predicted on the blasted heath from the dark and heavy skies. Constantine took inspiration from the heavenly cross at Milvian Bridge.
The atmosphere surrounds and bounds us, protecting and preventing, it warns and inspires us. How heavy is the atmosphere? As much as we want it to be.