Author Archives: patcol6_wp

Photon Jealousy

Do you like to travel? To sightsee? Do you get jealous of your friends who travel to exotic places?

To make you even more jealous, just think of a photon emitted by a distant star that makes the long, long journey all the way to your eye on Earth. Think of the cool places (no pun intended) that the photon gets to see. Exotic planets. An asteroid belt. A nebula. Sadly, these are things you will never get to see in your boring Earth-bound life. But that damn, lucky photon!

When I look up at the night sky, I find it difficult to imagine what’s really going on. So my trick is, when I see a star, I imagine the (wonderful, beautiful) journey that the photons took from the star to my eye. You could even try imagining you’re riding the photon like you’re riding a horse.

(I realize this is relativistically incorrect. Einstein tells us that you can never catch up to a photon. So you should never imagine traveling along side a photon and saying “Hello Mr. Photon”. This is physically impossible. However, my blog is about mental tricks – the psychology of physical imagination. And this trick helps me appreciate outer space.)


Stuck to a rock

Ever get the feeling like a big rock is weighing you down?

It’s funny how we rarely think about gravity, even though it’s the only thing keeping us from floating aimlessly in space. How can you remind yourself to think about this mysterious force?

Here’s one trick I’ve noticed. Suppose you’re looking at a photo album, either in your hand or on your laptop computer. Now flip it upside down (it = the album, or your laptop). Your knee-jerk reaction will be that the photos look stupid up-side-down. But convention is arbitrary. There is no preferred reference frame! It is arbitrary to view photos “right-side-up”.  (This also makes me wonder whether you could flip your internal convention about “right-side-up”, if you were strong enough to walk around on your hands all day.)

Looking at photos up-side-down takes your brain out of its comfort zone, and makes you think about gravity! You notice how ridiculous it is that everything is stuck to this big rock.

You can also take the opportunity to imagine people on the opposite side of Earth, who really are up-side-down, compared to you. Speaking of that, here’s a photo from Singapore:

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How many balloons are in the room?

In my first post, I discussed the key principle behind scientific imagination: abandoning your usual view of the world and taking an unusual view. This includes abandoning usual vocabulary, such as the unhelpful terms that biologists use for our internal organs.

Let me continue along this line to talk about balloons, in particular, the two balloons inside your chest that periodically inflate and deflate. They are more complicated than party balloons, with a network of branching airways. But if you’re trying to explain what a “lung” is to a young child, your best bet is to say it’s a balloon.

Here is a fun game to play. When you walk into a room, ask yourself: how many balloons are in the room? Any room you are in will of course have at least two balloons. But this game is especially fun if you’re on a subway train or a bus, where there’s many balloons. Once you make a good quantitative guess for the number of balloons, your mind is already in a “scientific state”, because you’re forcing it to think in an unusual way. Now try to picture all the balloons, as if you had Superman’s x-ray vision. Just ignore everything else about people’s bodies except for their balloons inflating and deflating. It feels creepy, but empowering to imagine other people’s balloons. Try it!


Scientific Imagination

This page is my blog. I will focus my blog on what I call “scientific imagination”. In particular, I will give you some mental tricks for getting in touch with Nature. I will NOT get into deep philosophical implications. Rather, I will focus on *practical* tricks that you can use to help your mind think about the world from a scientific perspective.

The key principle behind scientific imagination is to look at the world from a different view. Abandon your usual way of viewing the world. Abandon your usual vocabulary that you use in conversation. Take an unusual view. This may feel uncomfortable or awkward at first.  But with practice, you can make it feel natural.

My thinking along these lines has been influenced by Richard Feynman. Feynman understood the difference between a superficial and a deep understanding of the world. To see an example of “scientific imagination”, check out this video of where Feynman discusses the peculiar ritual of toothbrushing.

Speaking of toothbrushing, I propose that we change the name. When you wake in morning, instead of saying to yourself “it’s time to brush my teeth”, tell yourself “it’s time to clean my crystals”. Just use a different phrase. In doing so, you’re forced to imagine that teeth are crystals – a repetitive array of atoms. Which atoms? Calcium, oxygen, hydrogen, and phosphorous. These four atoms are repeated over and over and over again in your tooth. If you never use the phrase “cleaning my crystals”, you might never take the time to think about the microscopic structure of your teeth.

This brings us to the bigger topic of biological terminology. I’m incredibly bothered by biological terminology. The biologists have invented new words that convey no meaning – they make no connection to terminology outside of biology. Think of the words: tooth, muscle, bone, heart, artery, and lung. These words suck! Here are my proposed replacements for these words (in order): crystal, rubber band, rock, pump, pipe, and balloon. The problem with biological terminology is that it prevents you from making connections between biological organs and everyday objects. This issue is most important when you are teaching young children about biology. I warn you: do not bombard your children with uninformative terminology!

Let me end today’s blog post by talking about rocks and rubber bands (the musculoskeletal system) as well as pumps and pipes (the cardiovascular system).

Inside our bodies are rocks of different shapes and sizes. It seems strange to think of rocks inside us, but that’s the reality. These rocks are connected by rubber bands. The rubber bands are wrapped around the rocks. To bring the rocks closer together, some of the rubber bands contract. And to pull the rocks away from each other, some different rubber bands contract. (In my mind, I’m imagining my bicep and tricep, as I write this.)

Now let’s talk about the pump in the middle of our body. To transport the liquid food to all of our cells, the pump squeezes. The liquid food travels through the pipes, and along the way, some of the food leaks into the cells. Some of the liquid (now depleted of the food) comes back to the pump via different pipes.

In summary, I believe abandoning biological terminology is the first step towards understanding your body at a deeper, conceptual level.

More to come soon….