Saturday, October 18, 2014

Critical Point

10:57 AM

Share it Please

The drawn out moments before the exam results come out, the breath caught in your throat when you’re sure your parents have discovered your well-hidden stash of chips, the second right before you’re bullied into taking a dare, the moment you’re quite sure your boss has decided to fire you for your apparent incompetence—one thing is for certain. We have all (one way or another) felt the sweat tingling sensation of high pressure. It’s not much of a tingling sensation, really. It’s more of a claustrophobic, humid, elephants-pressing-against-all-sides sort of sensation.

High pressure situations are everywhere, and in physical chemistry, there exists a certain point called the critical point. Also known as the critical state, when a substance (in general) undergoes extreme pressurisation at extremely high temperatures, it reaches a point where no phase boundaries exist.

To explain this amazing phenomena further, I suppose we’ll need to dig up some elementary chemistry.

Just as we are, in the comfort of our own happy places, in a state of bliss and, in the presence of our worst adversaries, in a state of grumpy Grinch-ness, substances also go through phases in different circumstances. Their phases, perhaps like ours as well, are dictated by temperature and pressure. Water, for example, is liquid at room temperature. When it reaches 100 degrees Celsius, it boils. When it reaches 0 degrees Celsius, it freezes.

Naturally, the hotter it gets, the harder it is to keep one’s temper in check. It’s the same thing with any substance: as the temperature increases in a constant volume container, the molecules freak out and start hyperventilating. They move, and twist and just can’t sit still, and can’t (for the sake of this thought experiment) be sedated, thus bumping against the walls and fellow molecules. Consequentially, all that moving about causes an increase of pressure—which is not necessarily a terrible thing. High pressures and high temperatures do, in certain circumstances, improve one’s self.

In fact, the concept behind distillation is precisely separation by fire (figuratively speaking, that is). Distillation simply separates an impure mixture, such as crude oil, into its many components by heating it up, and separating the compounds that boil at different temperatures. This is, in effect, how we human beings ‘refine our search’ as well. In high stress competitions, those who do not break down into a fit of tears are those who eventually make it to the next round. The rest get weeded out because their figurative boiling point was not high enough.

But isn’t there such a thing as too much pressure? The kind of pressure that does not help at all? The kind of pressure that comes about in, oh, I dunno, a war for example, that leaves a person traumatised for the rest of his life?

I suppose this is an example of a ‘phaseless’ state. After the second World War, there were many soldiers who came back with what we now know as post-traumatic stress disorder. Left alone, soldiers with PTSD are unable to re-adjust to life back home. They can’t cope with mundane life after all the horrific tragedies they’d witnessed in the battlefield. Regular, social boundaries are breeched—surely not to be rude, but simply because these boundaries no longer occur to them. Their emotions are not fully under their own control. Clacking of plates could set off terrible memories of gunfire that eventually lead to a seemingly irrational outburst.

The critical point is somewhat like that. It’s not a liquid, or a solid. It’s not a distinguishable phase per se. It’s this misunderstood fragment of circumstances where its boundaries have just scrambled up and vanished.

And it is in these critical points and phases (or non-phases) when we are most irrational, most convoluted, most rash, but perhaps also most human in our damage. The fragility of our spirit perhaps shows us how we can be broken—and perhaps reminds us that we must tread carefully, lest we push others to their breaking point.

Article by Dani
Art by Shandra
Dani Pua is a storyteller and a Daughter of Eve. She is a curious creature, studying biochemistry until further notice, and considers herself a ‘citizen of the world.’ (Whatever that’s supposed to mean.) Oh, and she’s also very much fond of lemon squares. She shares some of her stories on

Shandra is currently a Communication Arts student. She is interested in multiple art forms such as theater, film and photography.  After college, she plans to enter the world of film and entertainment. 


Post a Comment