T-Minus 19 Days - Gandalf's Smoke Sculptures: A Technical Primer in Blowing Smoke Rings

Feast of Sts Peter and Paul, the Holy Apostles

Gandalf_with_Pipe_Square.jpgTO CLARIFY, a smoke ring is not blown, it is ejected. I think the “blowing” nomenclature is counterproductive for the novice. If you blow a steady stream of air from your mouth, you will not get a smoke ring. If you blow continuously, the swirl necessary for a smoke ring will curl and curl until it bursts in a chaotic mess. More than one frustrated pipe smoker has unnecessarily hyperventilated thanks to this misleading verbiage.

To form a stable smoke ring, one must eject a cylindrical slug of fluid that is about four times as long as it is wide. The slug must have a beginning and an end, and you must provide a reasonably sharp, fairly circular orifice to give the swirls a place to collect. The tongue rather than diaphragm is the motivator: rather than blowing from your lungs, close the back of your mouth with your tongue and push the air out with a gentle back-to-front motion. The smoke ring will take flight when you cease to push air out of your lips.


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This essential mechanism both issues Gandalf’s special-edition smoke sculptures from his lips and carries an A380 airliner from London to Dubai. There’s actually a raging online debate between Bernoulli’s Principle Progressives and Newtonian Fundamentalists about what it is that keeps winged things aloft (I wonder if, in a nominalist world, a capable mind deprived of teleologically significant grist doesn’t simply create ideology where none exists). But there is another way to come at the question.

Fluid—including air—sticks to itself. If, for whatever reason (Mr. Boeing and Gandalf, or Tolkien and Lewis themselves, for that matter, have different motives to be sure), one pushes on some air, it will drag some of its neighboring air along with it. At the meeting between the air being pushed and the air left alone, a molecular friction swap meet occurs. The end result is that some of the pushed air gets swung into the still air, and some of the still air gets swung in to the pushed air, creating a swirl effect that engineers (and Cable Weather Hyperbolistas) call a vortex. An airplane, for instance, is always moving on to new air and abandoning the old (truly modern, alas), leaving a trail of swirl behind it (though in the end, it is a very long, stretched ring that stretches from takeoff to landing). In the case of air being pushed out of your mouth, the swirl gathers ‘round your mouth forming a complete vortex ring which, if you’ve the good fortune to have a mouthful of pipe draw, you can see.

I doubt that any of this was explicitly available to the cast of pipeweed-smoking characters traversing Middle Earth, and the story does not suffer for lack of it. The pipe and its accoutrements lay late-summer-hazily over the topology of the storyline, always pleasant, never surprising, occasionally missed. I wonder how such benevolent nonchalance would be greeted from a contemporary author. Perhaps absence of vitriol against the unalloyed evil of tobacco can be forgiven the ignorant writer of yesteryear, along with fidelity to a sacramental ontology, as a doddering atavism that gets in the way of spectacularly rendered characters and settings.

Only villains smoke now. The fire in the Cracks of Doom, we now know, was fueled by Phillip Morris. In a desacramentalized world, smoking (of tobacco rather than the “healthful” cannabis) runs afoul of the corporeal morality that, in the absence of any transcendent reality, is the summum bonum, along with the consent of the human will to sexual intercourse of any variety. The horror with which my students received my jocular suggestion that one could use tobacco smoke to visualize interesting engineering phenomena punctuates the reversal. I wonder that a professor on a public university campus would be subject to arrest for smoking a pipe within a dozen paces of any entrance on campus, but would run afoul of no Kansas law were they to become romantically involved with a nineteen-year old sophomore.

And for those of you yet wondering if it is Bernoulli or Newton responsible for keeping your aluminum chariot aloft, I can tell you that it is definitively both. And arguably, neither; to the frustration of nominalist Progressives and Fundamentalists alike, wings and rings fly without regard for the name. It is in the very nature of air to make flight.


Brandon Buerge is a teacher, engineer, pilot, and neophyte contemplative living in Newton, KS.

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