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Are physicists more sensory than laypeople?

  1. Mar 11, 2012 #1
    Observers learn to conceptualize force, heat, electricity, relativity, uncertainty and other phenomena to appreciate the fundamentals of physics.

    Have you found tactility, imagination, the vestibular system and other perceptions to be indispensable for an empathetic understanding of physics?

    Do you believe that the study of these mechanics heightens one's perceptions?
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 11, 2012 #2
    All the real and interesting physics is completely beyond human experience - I don't see how sensory perception could benefit you at all, in fact if you're trying to rely on "feelings" to do physics, you're probably going to fail quite miserably. Only a very very very select few are brilliant enough (or lucky enough) to get anywhere by relying on what feels like the right answer.
  4. Mar 12, 2012 #3


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    My personal thoughts are the only difference between a scientist and a non-scientist if you get rid of all of the debate about intelligence and all that, is that a scientist just pays more attention to that specific thing than someone else.

    But to me this isn't just unique to scientists: it pretty much can be applied to everyone. People that decide to stick to something, pay a lot of attention, and actively think about something in conjunction with some kind of experimentation of some sort (I'm not talking about the kind of controlled experiments, but just any experiment) will get a kind of understanding on that particular field in the same way that an experimental physicist will get when he devotes most of his life to doing (or supervising) experiments, looking at the results, reading papers, communicating with other scientists and so on.

    They pay attention while the rest of us don't.

    With regards to imagination, I would say the same kind of thing. Let me explain.

    If you are put in situations where you are forced to think, forced to be creative, and as a consequence forced to use your imagination, then like a muscle it will be exercised and strengthened.

    I agree that people do have so called 'pre-dispositions' to things, but work translates into results time and time again. The people that want to do something, often will do something.

    It doesn't matter who it is, what kind of work they do, chances are if they have done it for a while, pay a lot of attention, think about things a bit, and are forced from time to time to confront challenges which they end up being successful in, those people will probably end up with an insight that no other human would have if they were not doing any of these things.

    In saying this, I think that the potential of the role of imagination is greatly underestimated: if people choose to think about things actively in an intense manner, then it really is amazing how this exercise is able to help one understand things that they are not really familiar with and haven't paid to attention to otherwise. It's really an amazing thing what imagination can do: we all hear about the story of Einstein but the truth is that quite a lot of people in all areas and walks of life have made amazing discoveries that are born from the premise of just imagining something and then following it through with mental clarification and the physical work required to bring it to fruition.
  5. Mar 12, 2012 #4


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    Excellent post chiro - I agree with it entirely.
  6. Mar 12, 2012 #5
    One can succeed in university physics classes with very little intuition or none at all if your analytical and mathematics skills are adequate and you're careful. BUT if you have to teach the material to students who are more liberal arts oriented or who have difficulty in memorizing formulas you have to be able to approach the problems from different angles using different techniques. The biggest complaint in high school physics classes is "The teacher knows the material but can't explain it." And what they mean is, can't verbalize it and connect it to the world they know. To be successful in teaching physics one must take all the knowledge accumulated and find multiple paths, many quite different from the ones you used, to get to this knowledge. The teacher learns far more than the student in this process.

    The real geniuses are the ones who can take the amazing works done by the pure scientists, whose minds should run free, and connect them. Each little dot in the knowledge spectrum, put together with the others, creates a window into something new and spectacular.
  7. Mar 12, 2012 #6

    jim hardy

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    Loren: yes to both questions.

    The mind can believe things that are wrong as easily as it can believe right ones so it's a lifelong process of testing and adjusting one's conceptions against math and observations of related phenomena.

    See what Einstein said here, page 3.

    old jim
  8. Mar 12, 2012 #7
    Thank you for sharing Einstein's mentation, jim.

    I consider the outside cosmos as the objective other. Our interior would be a sensory representation of that universe. Intermediate lies a projection which proves the outer world's reality and our inner world's freedom.

    Pardon the poetry.
  9. Mar 12, 2012 #8
    But what does creativity have to do with intuition? It seems that most often the correct answer in physics is one which is completely unintuitive.

    I think real genius just comes from hard work, and having the guts to follow an idea through to the end, and being able to realize where you've ended up. Sometimes you can follow idea and just get lost - the real masters of the trade may not know where they're going, but never get lost.

    I don't see what any of that has to do with feeling things out though.
  10. Mar 12, 2012 #9
    Intuition is using all your senses, skills, knowledge and life experience to analyze a problem and the characteristics of its possible solutions and also check the solution you already found mathematically. It tells you when you botched a sign convention, came up with an impossible answer, an answer outside the range it should lie in, all sorts of things to check yourself. It can give you another way to solve the problem mathematically. It includes the thinking outside the box too.

    And even the pure researcher has to know which things are worthy of chasing and how to decide this. Multiple experiments are set up, performed, the results analyzed and those that are promising, are continued. The person responsible for this decision uses every tool available to make this decision. The results have to be interpreted, connected to previous results, looked at in terms of physical implications when they can be found. The proverbial apple landing on the head was definitely sensory and intuition originally based on sensory experiences started all sorts of great research

    This may be why the question Are physicists more sensory than laypeople? was asked in the first place - because the first physics books include a lot of historical material where laws of physics were developed because of physical experiences and their interpretations throughout history. Intuition was around before mathematics.
  11. Mar 12, 2012 #10


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    What I have found personally is that mathematics more or less is used to clarify intuition rather than as a substitute for it.

    When people say that they get confused by mathematics, and when you hear about cases where the 'math' gets it right over the 'intuition', then for a response to that I say that your intuition needs 'updating'.

    The update comes from again, getting a lot of experience, focusing your attention for a very long time and actively thinking about what is happening.

    Also I don't want to confuse intuition with the 'why' as opposed to the mechanics of something because that is a whole different story: people may come up with some set of reasons that provide a good justification and although that is indeed very helpful, to me its not something that is absolute simply for the fact that an understanding might contain both truth and fiction depending on what the understanding is and for this reason I don't include this in intuition.

    So yeah intuition and mathematics are not really things that can be separated IMO but rather they are two things that are extremely intricately woven together.
  12. Mar 14, 2012 #11
    With out a doubt "the study of these mechanics heightens one's perceptions".

    This isn't only true for physics but for all that falls under "perceivable", which I understand is everything.

    I think a remarkable ability to imagine & visualize within posited "rules" is a trait of genius'. And is probably a preresiquit to any discovery that isn't happenstance.

    I cannot visualize words & letters very well, my spelling is terrible. I know preresiquit is spelled wrong by looking at it, and I can't visualize the correct spelling.

    Of course I could learn the "laws" of spelling, but correct spelling hardly seems to effect the massage, err I mean message.

    As far as the title of the thread goes....
    In an interview, Feynman was describing the differences in perspective between himself & an artist friend of his. In "perseving" a flower, Richard noted he "sees" the beauty as the physical make-up of the flower; a physics perspective, while his artist friend noted the colors, smell, shape ect of the flower; a perspective on the appearance. Richard also mentioned that he felt he "appreciated" the flower in a deeper sense than his artist friend (followed by "but this is just my perception").
    Last edited: Mar 14, 2012
  13. Mar 14, 2012 #12

    jim hardy

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    Not quite sure what they mean, but them's right fine words.

    May i try a variation on a theme of yours, and say "Parse reality" ?
    Sorta fits with my theme of constant testing and refinement .

    old jim

    "parse reality", will work on an avatar
  14. Mar 14, 2012 #13
    You ask really hard questions. But my two cents is that recognizing and minimizing one's biases might be more important than imagination. Maybe, as in a chess game, it's all right in front of us and the problem is connecting the proper set of inferences.
  15. Mar 15, 2012 #14
    I find that concentrating on any conceptual problem makes people less sensory. To the extent you are preoccupied with any analysis you withdraw from your immediate surroundings and lose touch with moment to moment sensory impressions. Arriving at this dichotomy between what's happening around you and what's going on in your mind is often the point of physics, and science in general, because the solution to the problem at hand can only be found when a phenomenon is highly abstracted from the confounding factors that obscure it.

    I knew a guy who was training to get his pilot's license. The instructor told him to never rely on his "feelings" about whether the plane was level or not, to go by the instrument reading. To demonstrate, he blindfolded the guy while they were in the air and told him to level the plane by feel alone. Then he removed the blindfold and the guy saw he was cocked over 90 degrees to the horizon.

    I think most of physics is like that. The whole point of it is to screen out immediate sensory impressions that obscure what is going on at the level you want to know about.
  16. Mar 15, 2012 #15
    Oh wow, I totally missed that perspective. You're absolutely right.

    Often I think of SR while walking my dog, so "nature" is my immediate surrounding. Sometimes, after thinking of relatively simple SR stuff, I am left in awe/wonderment of nature/biology type stuff in that it can be "proactive" in it's existance, an odd concept in the face of SR. That "sense" passes fairly quickly though, the dicotamy is too much.
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