Friday, October 5, 2007


Our intuitive grasp of physics is (as intuition tends to be) based on generalizations of experiences of how things usually work. This is usually a good thing.

Too bad that experience we build with our senses in a particular environment is not very helpful when it comes to understanding the underlying principles. This is why people often find physics difficult -- it is counterintuitive. I'm not talking about quantum mechanics here, you can probably recall how people scratch their heads in high school physics when trying to grasp Newton's laws. (You mean that if I throw a ball it will continue in a straight line until an external force acts on it? That's not true! Everyone knows that it will lose speed and eventually fall to the ground. OK, so without gravity it would not fall, but it must come to a stop, since it left my hand and nothing is pushing it. What friction? No, I'm not buying this!)

Now, our adaption to certain circumstances make us very clever at surviving and using our environment. But as you see, it's only with an effort we can put ourselves outside this field where we are experts and feel at home. What we experience when we do that can perhaps be described as sense of wonder, or just vertigo. When the perspectives shift, and we realize that everything is much bigger and the things we take for granted are only marginal special cases of everything. Some people don't like it at all, they just stay with the things they are used to and comfortable with -- out of laziness, mostly, but perhaps sometimes out of insecurity.

Given this, I was a little surprised when I just a minute ago was reading an essay by Isaac Asimov (by the way: I just confirmed that he is really a much better writer of popular science than of literature, I was never able to enjoy any of his novels, but rather like the essays I've found). In this piece he was very indignant about a poll where 21 percent of American adults answered that the Sun goes around the Earth. He attributes this state of ignorance to reading of the Bible, specifically two verses.

I must say that Asimov really has much higher thoughts about people than I have. Perhaps because he was a very cerebral person himself. I usually consider myself to be mainly cerebral, because I don't trust emotions. Nevertheless, I believe that people don't always want to think that much.

Imagine the situation. Someone stops a woman on the street: "Quickly, does the Sun go around the Earth, or does the Earth go around the Sun?" What do you think is the most likely explanation to why she picks the wrong answer:

1) Well, the sun rises in the morning and sets in the evening. Everyone can see that it's moving across the sky -- of course it goes around the earth. Now, can I continue with what I was doing?

2) Hmm, now what did they say in Sunday school? It was something about a battle, and someone wanted to fight longer -- or something like that. Now, I'm sure I remember that they said that God stopped the sun, not the earth. Therefore it must be the sun that moves around the earth, which is fixed.

No. A few might have reasoned along the lines of my second alternative, but I'm sure that Asimov definitely overestimated most of the people who picked the wrong answer. He thought that they had thought about it, and arrived at a conclusion after reading a book (they just didn't take the right book for learning about celestial mechanics).

I have the impression that most people don't want to think too much at all, if they can avoid it. Some of them might listen to people who can tell them what they should think so they don't have to bother (and some of those might end up as biblical literalists), but most will not even care enough to do that. They will just agree with what people around them say, or avoid having any opinion at all.

Despite this I tend to like people I meet, I'm really quite friendly. I just have to add this so you won't think that I'm a misanthropic intellectual snob ;-) And now I've written something, and therefore I'm happy. Good night!

Update: The essay I talked about here is "The nearest star" in The Secret of the Universe (first published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction October 1989).

I also corrected some typos above.


Anonymous said...

To elaborate, I agree that people tend to exagerate to what extent Christians are familiar with the Bible.

There's a great illustration of that in the documentary The God Who Wasn't There, where a bunch of random Christians are asked to explain various biblical concepts, with humorous effect.

Elliot said...

I think you're right. Asimov's explanation is shaped by the old "warfare of science and religion" conspiracy-theory myth, rather than an understanding of ordinary human apathy and disinterest. The scientific resistance to heliocentrism was well-grounded in common sense, at least until Galileo offered his evidence.

And everything from The Da Vinci Code to the recent wave of "Jesus didn't exist" claims just go to show how ignorant most people are of not only religious basics but also biblical scholarship and contemporary history. It doesn't matter if a majority of reputable scholars in a field agree that Da Vinci was not coding secrets into his paintings, or that a prophet named Jesus of Nazareth most likely did exist... These are all just infinitely malleable cartoon characters in a lot of people's heads.