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« Chicken And Egg | Main | Unfair And Unbalanced »


Diana Hsieh posts this story, about supposedly educated people. I'd like to think it's apocryphal, but sadly, I've had too many similar experiences to think so. She, and husband Paul, via whom I found the link, say it's good for a laugh, but I don't find it very funny.

About 6-7 years ago, I was in a philosophy class at the University of Wisconsin, Madison (good science/engineering school) and the teaching assistant was explaining Descartes. He was trying to show how things don't always happen the way we think they will and explained that, while a pen always falls when you drop it on Earth, it would just float away if you let go of it on the Moon.

My jaw dropped a little. I blurted, "What?!" Looking around the room, I saw that only my friend Mark and one other student looked confused by the TA's statement. The other 17 people just looked at me like "What's your problem?"

"But a pen would fall if you dropped it on the Moon, just more slowly." I protested.

"No it wouldn't," the TA explained calmly, "because you're too far away from the Earth's gravity."

Think. Think. Aha! "You saw the APOLLO astronauts walking around on the Moon, didn't you?" I countered, "why didn't they float away?" "Because they were wearing heavy boots," he responded, as if this made perfect sense.

As the piece points out, this was a philosophy major, who would have presumably had a class or two in logic. There was a time that philosophy majors could, and would have been expected to understand physics, because physics and science itself was in fact an outgrowth of philosophy (it was called "natural philosophy"). That day seems, sadly, to be past. But how can anyone this appallingly ignorant be considered well or broadly educated?

And even worse, he didn't realize how ignorant he was--he probably thought himself well enlightened on the subject, and more than competent to lecture to his lesser undergraduates. He was "don't know squared" (which is sadly, for obvious reasons, often the case).

Equally sadly, I have a similar story from the aerospace industry itself. Back when I worked at the Aerospace Corporation, a couple decades ago, I was fresh out of school, and sitting in a meeting with more senior people, discussing a conceptual design for a new military geostationary satellite. The subject was how to provide orientation. The two traditional choices were spin stabilization (many of the Hughes communications satellites used this technique) and active reaction control, which was more accurate, but limited the lifetime, due to depletion of propellant.

I (or someone, but I think it was me) suggested using gravity gradient stabilization (that is, taking advantage of the fact that a non-spherical satellite will naturally orient itself in the local vertical position, due to differential tidal forces between the line of the orbit and the small distances of the appendages from that line). The response of one of the supposedly experienced engineers was, "There's no gravity gradient at geosynchronous altitude."

I was a little surprised. "Oh, you mean there's not enough to do the job?" (I was thinking that perhaps he'd already considered it, and run the numbers.)

"No, there is no gravity gradient effect that high--it only applies in LEO."

Note that he wasn't making a quantitative argument, he was making a qualitative one. Low orbits had gravity gradient, high ones did not.

Being much his junior, I didn't want to get into an argument about it, but my boss, who was also attending, happened to be Vladimir (Val) Chobotov, author of books on orbital mechanics and a reigning expert on the space debris problem, so I figured he'd speak up. He didn't.

Walking back from the meeting with him, I asked him what that was all about. It turned out that I was right, but he hadn't thought it worth getting into it with him in the meeting. We later wrote up a paper suggesting it.

What happened? Sometimes even engineers don't always apply good scientific principles. In this case, I suspect that he was an airplane guy who'd migrated into the space business (as often was the case in the beginning decades in the space industry), and had never really learned the fundamentals of orbital mechanics, or the underlying principles. Instead, he'd probably taken a space systems design course, and been given a lot of engineering rules of thumb, one of which was, no doubt, that gravity gradient can be used in LEO, but not in GEO.

And that's not a bad rule of thumb, as long as you understand where it comes from. Gravity gradient is indeed much less at twenty thousand miles altitude than at two hundred miles, and for most satellites could be considered, for practical purposes, to be non-existent. But we weren't talking about most satellites--we were looking at a new concept, much larger than anything previously deployed in GEO, with long booms and appendages that might, in fact be used for G-G stabilization. But because he didn't understand the physics, he mistook a rule of thumb for natural law, even though the law of gravitation says that the earth's gravity extends out to infinity, though it drops off as the square of the distance. As evidence that it works much farther away than GEO, consider an object over ten times as far again (the original subject of this post), the Moon.

The Moon's rotation rate is exactly the same as its orbital period. As a consequence, it always shows the same face to the earth--we never saw the "back" side of it until we sent the first probes in the 1960s. Isn't this an amazing coincidence, that the two rates would coincide so that the view from earth was always the same?


The moon is in what's called a tidal lock, another way of saying that it's stabilized by the gravity gradient. It's not perfectly spherical--it's a little unbalanced, and one side has a little more mass than the other. Over the eons, gentle but persistent gravity gradient torques have oriented it into its present state and stabilized it there, always with the heavy side either facing away, or toward the earth, and thus it always presents the same view in the sky.

And of course, had we wanted to have a discussion of the issue in that meeting, that's exactly the example I would have used then.

But to get back to the original topic, this to me is another example of C. P. Snow's two cultures (well described in Pirsig's Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance): the liberal arts types who are ignorant of mathematics and science (and often perversely proud of the fact), and the scientists and engineers who have to actually make things work.

[Update at 12:14 PM PDT]

For those who didn't get enough spacecraft dynamics in this post, go check out this little discussion of Explorer I from Professor Hall, who's back from his motorcycle trip to Montana.

Posted by Rand Simberg at August 11, 2003 11:43 AM
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Forget about liberal artists for a minute and let's talk about what up and coming engineers and scientists don't know. Ask a young engineer what 1.1 times 1.101325 is. He will probably get out his calculator, punch in the whole thing and tell you that the answer is 1.2114575. I challenge any reader to tell me what is wrong with the answer. I doubt anyone raised in the age of the calculator can tell me.

Posted by Jardinero1 at August 11, 2003 03:07 PM

Well, it's overprecise, but otherwise OK...

Posted by Rand Simberg at August 11, 2003 03:28 PM

The precision of the result can be no better than the least precise number in the calculation; Error budgets and all that. 1.2

Posted by Fred Boness at August 11, 2003 04:25 PM

Rand - there's a great disquisition on this in Gross & Levitt's Higher Superstition, which covers PoMo's attempted foray into hard sciences (e.g., the infamous Alan Sokal-Social Text affair).

Posted by iowahawk at August 11, 2003 04:44 PM

...the infamous Alan Sokal-Social Text affair.

Yes, that one gutted them like a rotten trout, but they were too dumb to realize it. It's like the old saying about the guy who occasionally stumbles across a fact--he just picks himself up, dusts himself off and goes on his way...

Posted by Rand Simberg at August 11, 2003 05:12 PM

Your orginal story sounds like an urban legend, But those of us majoring in the sciences in the mid-1970s (at the U of Chicago, no less) would often remark how you would see science majors who were involved in the arts but almost never someone majoring in Humanities with any interest in astronomy or computers.

I've always thought that it was because the entry costs in the arts are low compared to science-- anyone can learn three guitar chords, slap paint on canvas, pretend to be someone else, or yodel, or be a writer who's "hot with the bull", and be mistaken for someone with talent. WIth the sciences (or accounting, for that matter), however, it's objective whether or not you are any good.

Posted by Raoul Ortega at August 11, 2003 08:41 PM

hey... we do know that... we just don't think of it initially

plus... most measurements that come out as 1.1 actually have much greater precision

ok so i'm ashamed that i din't pick up on it

but i did the math in my head :)

Posted by libertarian uber alles at August 11, 2003 10:39 PM

in my spacecraft design course, one of my pet peeves goes something like this: spacecraft subsystems require 100 watts of power; solar cells are 18% efficient; sun provides 1378 watts per square meter; size solar panel and get: Area=0.403160781 m^2

however, that's entirely different from the "heavy boots" story, which was making the rounds when i was an undergraduate in the early 80s. in fact, i do believe that it appeared in Omni magazine though i'll never find the reference.


Posted by Chris Hall at August 12, 2003 06:38 AM

Peripherally relevant link: Butterflies and Wheels
Covers various topics in psuedo-science and woolly headed thinking, with occasional digs at the humanities. The Wooly-Thinker's Guide to Rhetoric is particularly good.

Posted by Andrew Case at August 12, 2003 08:48 AM

Hmm, as both a techie and artist, I think both groups have a lot to learn from each other.

Artists are generally much better listeners than techies. That might be why they're better communicators as well.

Yes, artists get lots of real world things wrong. So do techies.

Oh, the entry costs in the arts aren't really all that low. Yes, anybody can pick up a camera and take a picture. Getting a good one reliably, though, takes a fair amount of learning. Creating a moving piece of art isn't as easy as it seems to the nonartist.

Why no bashing of artists in this post? Well, I suspect I'm talking mostly to techies here. I bash artists in appropriate fora.

BTW, I do respect and like my fellow techies. We are underappreciated in this society.

Posted by Chuck Divine at August 12, 2003 09:20 AM

You can see the same effect at work on a much grander scale (and with much more damaging effects) in the software industry, where vast majorities of people believe that, for example, operating system crashes and viruses are just the Way the World Is rather than the result of poor engineering practices.

Hm... I hadn't thought of this before, but perhaps it's a good thing that going into space is actually dangerous, that you can actually kill yourself if you don't know what you're doing. It provides a natural mechanism for filtering out the rif raf. Software, alas, has fewer such mechanisms, and I think that's one of the reasons that the software industry is in its present sorry state.

Posted by Erann Gat at August 12, 2003 10:36 AM

Andrew, it's an interesting site, but it also has a lot of digs at religion, which I find a little off putting (like the bit about "brights"). While the pomos do go off on the deep end with their total relativism, I also have problems with atheists who believe that they have a market on "truth."

We all have belief systems that ultimately rest on some sort of axiomatic faith, but Dawkins, Dennett et all don't want to accept that for their own belief systems. I'm perfectly content to say that science is objectively better, but only by its own standards, not in any absolute sense.

Posted by Rand Simberg at August 12, 2003 11:03 AM

> I'm perfectly content to say that science is objectively better, but only by its own standards, not in any absolute sense.

That's an odd comment. "Objectively better" means "better by the standards of material reality." Science is objectively better (in some contexts) because it objectively succeeds where other belief systems fail. For example, we can create computers using the methods of science, but we cannot create (or at least have not yet succeeded in creating) computers through prayer. That makes science "objectively better" (in a context where you want a computer) regardless of whether or not you actually believe in science.

Posted by Erann Gat at August 12, 2003 11:31 AM

Only if you value working computers, Erann. "Better" has to have some value system by which to define it...

Posted by Rand Simberg at August 12, 2003 11:45 AM

My astronomy club was sponsoring a charity event for the Muscular Dystrophy Association where we would entice people to donate money by letting them look through our telescopes at either the sun (with an appropriate filter, of course) or, after dark, the moon. We were set up--with permission from management--at a local movie theater and there were plenty of passersby to accost.

I had put a small sign on my telescope saying "See the sun through a telescope". Time had passed, darkness had fallen, and I had moved my scope to the moon. People were coming by, taking a quick look, and jamming a dollar or two into the plastic MDA donation box I had attached to the telescope.

Things had slowed a bit when an intelligent looking guy came sauntering by, slowed, backed up, and came over to the scope. He took a long look through the eyepiece and then did the most amazing thing. He turned around and shouted at the top of his lungs to a lady who had been following him. "Hey, honey, come over quick and take a look at the sun." At first I thought he was kidding. The sun had set two hours ago and he was looking at the first quarter moon. Then he turned and said to me, "I thought the sun was round. Are those sunspots I see on the surface?" Now I was floored. And now I knew why he thought he was looking at the sun. I glanced down at my scope and there it was. SEE THE SUN THROUGH A TELESCOPE. I'd forgotten to remove the sign. I reached down, snatched it off, and sheepishly told the guy that he couldn't see the sun after dark because my telescope couldn't defy the laws of physics. He just as sheepishly stabbed a dollar into the jar and took off. He was--apparently--not as intelligent as he looked.

I know this post is a little off the original subject. But to make a short story long, here's my point. We've done this charity event many times and I am always amazed by the public's lack of basic scientific knowledge. I have had people ask me serious questions like: "My mother says there is a tree growing on the moon. Do you know where it is?" There's almost always one person who wants to see the a lunar lander through my small telescope. They are always astonished when I show them mountain chains on the surface. In fact, a lot of them have to be shown that the moon is actually in the sky.

It's a sad but true situation. Science means nothing to the majority of people in this country. I am absolutely convinced that most would believe the floating pen statement.

Posted by at August 12, 2003 12:03 PM

I guess stupidity runs in my family, too. I forgot to post my name with the astronomy club comments.

Posted by Wes Whiddon at August 12, 2003 12:05 PM

It's the Dilbert Principle at work. Everyone is an idiot at some time during the day.

Posted by Mark Smith at August 12, 2003 01:00 PM

> "Better" has to have some value system by which to define it...

Obviously. That's why I hedged with the qualifier "in some contexts." (I'll go further and say that science is objectively better in a large number of contexts that substantial majorities of people -- religious and non-religious alike -- agree on. For example, most people agree that curing disease is a good thing, and science is, at least in the historical aggregate, objectively better at curing disease than religion is. In fact, I'll go one step further and say that there are many more contexts in which science is objectively better relative to values widely shared among religious and non-religious people alike than there are such contexts where religion is objectively better, and that therefore science could plausibly be considered "objectively better" in an absolute sense (or at least by implicit consensus). Note that this is not an argument for preferring science over religion, because there are (and can be) no objective standards for dealing with non-objective values, like the well-being of one's soul. Also, religion does seem to be objectively better than science in some areas, like making people feel happy and secure.)

Notiwthstanding the above, "objectively better, but only by its own standards" still makes no sense to me.

Posted by Erann Gat at August 12, 2003 01:51 PM

Regarding the whole "objectively better" thing - Value judgements do require some sort of a-rational axiom, but that's not to say that all such axioms are created equal (which I realize is far from what you espouse, Rand). Unfortunately the PoMo crowd does take this stance, which is why they're so easy to mock.

I can see how the occasional shot at religion in general could be off-putting - I tend to read these things as being shots aimed at the irrationalist faction of the religious community rather than all people of faith (some of whom are quite sensible and reasonable folks).

Posted by Andrew Case at August 12, 2003 02:03 PM

My reading of such shots was that they were aimed at anyone with "irrational beliefs" (e.g., any higher being).

Posted by Rand Simberg at August 12, 2003 02:08 PM

I'll be posting on this eventually -- Jerry King's "The Art of Mathematics" has some great commentary on the two cultures -- but first, a story of my own.

A few years back, when I lived in Dallas, the director of the planetarium at Fair Park told a Texas Astronomical Society meeting that when the planetarium announced that telescopes would be available for public viewing of the Tue 10 Jun 94 annular solar eclipse, they got calls from people asking why they hadn't scheduled it on a weekend, when more people could drive down to see it.

These calls were from *teachers*.

In other news, Paul Krugman's latest column in the NYTimes claims that US soldiers in the Iraqi desert are being given only 3 liters of water a day, which would, if true, kill them all in something less than a week. Physical reality? What's that?

Posted by Jay Manifold at August 12, 2003 03:59 PM

I must admit to being vaguely bothered when hearing stories like these. Not because it indicates that our Arts-educated breatheren are woefully naive about the natural world, (sadly this is too often true) but rather what it says about the likely science-educated teller of the story. And what is that? Read on...

What is the intended message this anecdote? And, perhaps more tellingly, what is the message conveyed to the average non-science educated reader?

Undoubtedly, the writer (in this case Diana Hsieh, but these comments are intended toward a broader scope) is expressing mild scorn at the science education level of the artsy-type in the story.

I think the average reader would find this tone to be haughty and holier-than-thou. Certainly nothing in the anecdote attempts to educate the reader. This, I maintain, is a primary example of the negative atmosphere of distrust between the present day arts and sciences, a symptom of which would be the lack of artists in science classes.

If the intention of an anecdote like this is to provide a springboard for advocacy of basic science literacy and applied logical thinking, it would behove the teller to focus more on the explaination (like in Rand's example of Gravity Gradiants) than to dwell on the ignorance of the artist.

Fred K
BS in Astrophysics

Posted by Fred K at August 12, 2003 04:18 PM

Bravo to Fred K -- I'll be commenting along the same lines over on Arcturus.

But I'm really commenting here because when I said "Tue 10 Jun 94" I should have said "Tue 10 May 94." ;)

Posted by Jay Manifold at August 12, 2003 05:56 PM

That Wisconsin story sounds like an urban myth.

Posted by nottrue at August 12, 2003 06:09 PM

On my first engineering job we were assembling a process plant for making paper. We'd pre-assembled most of the equipment and were shipping it in by truck. The site chief engineer asked me to check the weight of the central machine press, which I had to estimate from the assembly drawings and details - they were concerned that the Iron Fairing crane wasn't up to the job of lifting it off the truck.

They were right, I reckonned it was about 21,000kg's - given the site crane was only rated for 10,000kg's for a straight lift, they were actually going to be needing something rated for something like 45,000kg.

The assembly engineer went absolutely spare calling me all sorts of names when I told him my estimate. He had "looked" at the press section involved and reckoned it was no more than 8,000kg's.

So we got a cold drink and watched him supervise lifting the section off the low loader.

Eventually the crane operator refused to try and again, and they had to send out for a 45,000kg crane and lifting beam.

Posted by Dave at August 13, 2003 04:12 AM


> Artists are generally much better listeners than techies

So, you don't know very many artists, do you?

Posted by at August 16, 2003 10:20 AM

Better - more people eat more regularly with science than with prayer.

My wife is an artist. Very good too but unknown.

Posted by M. Simon at August 26, 2003 03:50 AM

Gee guys...I don't see any need to attempt to draw a distinction between Arts and Sciences.

The supposition that anyone can slap paint on canvas or aim and shoot a camera may be true. But I agree with Chuck. There is a difference between that and doing it well.

I'd further argue that many artistic disciplines have rules and logic and physics, that when applied properly, enhance the art significantly. Photography and architecture come immediately to mind.

One of the double edged swords of art is that it is, mostly, subjective. Unfortunately, that, coupled with today's relativism, has lead to an attempt to not judge art. I don't believe that this lack of judgement is isolated to the arts, however.

Because of the subjectivity and relativism, there is a conditioning that has transpired. We do not expect an artist to strive toward the excellence of past artistic eras. We are reluctant to say that Mozart's music surpasses Snoop Dog's. We have settled for unartistic architecture and poorly designed furniture.

I suppose what I'm trying to say is that art, done properly, is far more than what is commonly expected of artists and far more than stringing 3 chords together. This does not mean that the discipline of art or humanities should be less demanding. In fact, I'm saying that the fields have suffered because they are currently taught and consumed with less criticism.

As to Unnamed questioning artists being better listeners, I'll say this. Good artists are far more observant than most people. You can't be unobservant and catch a form, a shadow, a gesture and create a beautiful and honest representation of humanity. You can't be unobservant and fashion a verse that moves millions. And these acts are far more than just slapping paint on canvas.


Posted by cbk at August 30, 2003 11:02 AM

Jardinero1 suggested "Ask a young engineer what 1.1 times 1.101325 is," then asked what is wrong with the answer "1.2114575."

Many others replied that the precision of the answer should be not more than 1.2, but this is entirely wrong. The question was posed too simply to justify that conclusion.

The simple truth is that 1.1 times 1.101325 is 1.2114575. There is no other correct answer to the question when posed without any special context.

If the question had been stated specifically in terms of imprecise measurements, then sure, 1.2 would be a better answer-- but it wasn't.

And even if it WAS, the fact is that 1.2 isn't exactly the perfect answer, since it carries more implied precision than 1.1 and doesn't happen to lie in the middle of the range of likely answers for the physical-measurement version of the problem.

"1.2" implies an error of not more than one part in 12, right? But "1.1" implies an error as large as one part in 11.

Based on normal rounding methods, the likely answer for the resulting physical quantity is somewhere between about 1.156 and 1.267. The proposed answer of 1.2 could be reasonably taken to mean "at least 1.15 but less than 1.25," but that range includes some values that should be excluded (6%), and excludes some that should be included (17%). Your chance of error is pretty significant even if you assume some normal distribution within the measurement errors.

Let's try to be a little less dogmatic about these rules until we understand them better, okay?

Posted by Peter N. Glaskowsky at December 20, 2004 04:52 PM

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