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Intuitive physics

  1. Dec 8, 2003 #1
    What is intuitive physics?

    Thanks in advance.
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 8, 2003 #2


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    seems to be a research topic in Education and Developmental Psych

    I had never heard of an academic study area called "intuit. phys." until seeing your post. I put "intuitive physics" into google and got links to a bunch of research done in Developmental Psychology in places like Berlin and Zurich.

    The idea is there is a certain amount of physics that you pick up as an infant or child which doesnt involve any MATH and may even be be BEFORE LANGUAGE.

    (I know Piaget studied children learning certain physical concepts at pre-school age----he studied that long long ago, so maybe people would say he began the study of "intuitive physics". Wasnt Piaget Swiss?)

    If some learning of physics concepts and facts is prior to language then it perhaps would not even depend on what CULTURE the child is raised in. One can explore the pre-verbal development of physicsal understanding in two different cultures to see how much is cultural and how much is even more basic. Here is an example of a cross-cultural study in I.P. done in Berlin and in Trobriand Islands South Pacific. The following quote is from

    Studying Intuitive Physics in two Cultures

    Intuitive Physics
    Physical knowledge significantly predates any systematic theoretical treatment of physics. The most basic knowlegde presupposed by theoretical physics is based on experiences acquired almost universally in any culture by human activities. It includes the perception of material bodies and their relative permanence, their impenetrability, their mechanical qualities such as heaviness or hardness, as well as their physical behavior. The outcome is an „intuitive physics“ which is built up in ontogenesis and guides human activities related to our physical environment.

    A Cross-Cultural Study on Intuitive Physics
    In view of the lack of sufficient empirical evidence on the universal character of intuitive physics, a study was carried out at the Max-Planck-Institute of the History of Science, including field research both in Germany and on the Trobriand Islands (Papua Newguinea). Interviews with 56 German school children were conducted with the aim to analyze the ontogenetic development of intuitive conceptions of life, force, motion and weight. In order to examine which aspects of intuitive physical thinking and its development might belong to universal cognitive structures, a parallel investigation was carried out in Kiriwina (Trobriand Islands). The same tasks given to the German school children were administered to Trobriand children and adults. To control for possible influences of schooling, two groups were studied; the first group consising of 31 children the Catholic mission school in Gusaweta, and the second group consisting of 41 children and adults from a remote Trobriand village (Iuwada) with no school.

    ... In order to explore concepts of motion and its causes, five tasks were utilized. For the assessment of concepts of throw, collision and horizontal motion, one task was administered, respectively. Two tasks aimed at conceptions of fall. To assess criteria for the inanimate/alive distinction, one task was administered. In order to study concepts of weight, six tasks were used. One task aimed at the idea of weight conservation, one task - Floating and Sinking - involved judgments about the behaviour of different objects in water, one task aimed at the relation of matter and weight, and three tasks tested an extensive idea of weight....

    I am not saying that research in "Intuitive Physics" is good or interesting. I just heard of it this minute, from you.

    Before now, when I say "please give me an intuitive explanation of what energy is, please give me an intuitive idea of how an electric motor works...." I mean something different. For me "intuitive" means NON-TECHNICAL, non-mathematical, using plain language and commonplace images and ideas we all share. For me, physics is physics and "intuitive" is just a STYLE of explanation. So it is not an academic research area! Maybe it is silly to turn it into an academic field of study! I cant say. But GOOGLE thinks it is a research field in Developmental Psych.
    Last edited: Dec 8, 2003
  4. Dec 8, 2003 #3
    I see. Thanks. So you would not say intuition is the basis upon which all constructed physics models ultimately rest, I think, if I am reading you correctly. If that is correct, upon what basis do they rest, in your opinion?
  5. Dec 8, 2003 #4


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    I suspect that YOU have some ideas about the cognitive basis of mathematical models of nature. So I should be asking YOU to reveal some of your thinking about this, not the other way around!

    You asked: what is "intuitive physics"? I reply that according to Google it is a research field in Developmental Psych. (the study of how children acquire social behavior, skills, language, culture, personality or whatever it is they acquire.

    You should come out with your ideas. I will help by giving you some "traction"---some gravel so the road is not so slick---if you want. But I have not thought about it.

    I think physics mainly involves mathematical models of nature that let one predict the results of measurements----or anyway the measurements let one refine the parameters in the model.

    The quantities in the models have roots in childhood experience----like volume, hard, soft, bigger, smaller, fast, slow, area, length, color, balance, push, swing, bounce, fall, liquid, bubble, musical pitch.

    One learns some basic physical properties sometime in childhood probably in the same years that one learns spoken language.

    But these are not physical models or laws. They are at the cognitive roots but they are not physics. They are also at the cognitive roots of mathematics (which is about other things as well as number).

    A child who gets a rich sensory experience of nature will have
    RESOURCES to learn physics later in life, and yet may not learn--may chose to focus on other things.
    The job of the physics teacher is to tap into the fund of experience in a way that vitalizes the laws.

    BTW the laws are not absolutely true. They get improved-on from time to time. But they are the best we have for the time being and they do work rather well for many purposes.

    Experience is more true (my feeling is) than laws. You either went skiing or you did not. You felt certain things. You fell while going down the ski-slope or you did not.

    the physical model that is applied to experience is subject to change---Aristotle and Newton would have explained skiing differently, and scuba-diving too, no doubt.
  6. Dec 8, 2003 #5


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    If you want to think about the relation of experience and natural language to physical models, maybe it would be good to go back to one of the earliest.

    Aristarchus (250 BC?)

    he realized that the sun was much much bigger than the earth and
    set up a heliocentric model (earth and planets going around sun) to compare with what he and others could see

    Archimedes read Aristarchus heliocentric model and discussed it in a book written for the child of a friend of his---a book intended to teach about the relative sizes of things in the universe.

    Copernicus later discovered much the same thing.

    Everybody had always seen the sun and seen the moon. This is experience.
    To say that one is a lot bigger than the other is mathematics (of a very simple kind) or anyway borders on math.

    To make a model with E going around S, and day/night being produced by earth ROTATING instead of sun rising in east and flying across sky and setting in west, this is an early act of physics.

    It is not rooted in experience. The experience of seeing sun and moon in the sky we all had for a million years. What he did was physics, not experience, and required drawing a geometrical model (in the sand, on papyrus, in a computer)

    He drew a picture and counted the days the moon took from quarter to quarter and from this DEDUCED that the sun was very far away (much farther than the moon, and thus much bigger) which was not something that one can simply look up in the sky and experience.

    And so I say that physics is a quirky peculiar activity that is different from universal primitive human activities that we invariably get around to in the course of living life. A person can live their whole life (and live a good full life) and never ask a physics question or have a physics insight. There did not have to ever be a person named Aristarchus
  7. Dec 8, 2003 #6


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    If you mean Aristarchus did that, the facts are a little different. Aristarchus figured a way to get the relative distances of the sun and moon by observation. He reasoned that at the exact moment the moon is half full, the line from the moon to the sun makes a right angle with the line from the moon to the earth. Thus the earth, the moon, and the sun form a right triangle, with the right angle at the moon, and the earth-sun distance as the hypotenuse. So if you measure the angle between the Moon and the Sun at that exact moment, the ratio if the moon's distance to the sun's distance will be the cosine of that angle. Yes they did know how to solve right triangles in his day, although Aristarchus would have used a "chord" function instead of a cosine.

    The actual measurement, as you can see is fraught with difficulties and sources of error. Aristarchus got a wrong figure, sun distance >= 30 times moon distance (the actual ratio is close to 400 to 1). His figure was enough to set him off though, since it was already known that the moon is about a quarter the size of the earth, so the sun would be over 30 times that or 7.5 the size of the earth (in diameter, 421 times the earth in volume). Such a big ball couldn't swing through the sky every day, and so...
  8. Dec 9, 2003 #7


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    definition of intuition:
    a first or primary truth.

    definition of physics:
    The study of the natural or material world and phenomena; natural philosophy

    logically putting these two together as a single definition, i would interpret as the human being's ability to "know" the primary truth of physics before being conditioned with traditional education - which may (or may not) lead a student away from the basics or away from the primary guiding truth within that helps us understand the laws of our universe...
  9. Dec 9, 2003 #8

    I do have some thoughts about that which I am asking on but I'm really, at this point, attempting to clarify for myself, the philosophical basis of physics. For that, I need to develop an understanding of how physicists themselves view physics. I have obtained a picture of physics as being a system devised on the basis of logic and reasoning, as a way of understanding phenomena in relation to phenomena.

    The result of that cognitive processing (logic/reason)has been the development of a highly sophisticated language, namely, mathematics, to symbolise relationships between phenomena. As you are aware, language itself is symbol and affects how phenomena are observed and even experienced. A good and well-known example of this is the difference between how those from extremely cold, snowy climates experience snow and how those from warmer climates experience snow. Those from snowy climates may have a linguistic access to the experience of snow which is much broader and subtlely descriptive than those from warmer climates. For the warm-climate person, snow may simply be white and cold, possibly even pretty. For the snow-acclimatised person, snow might be grey, white, heavy, light, pelting, driven, floating...you get the picture (I am probably not using the exact terms used).

    Do you think there is a possiblity that the highly-specific mathematical language of physics actually affects the experience of the language-user, of the phenomena and do you think it is possible that models of the universe humanly-constructed over the past couple of thousand years, have affected the experience of existence in cultures in which those models have become commonly accepted?

    Thanks again.
  10. Dec 9, 2003 #9


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    this is going too far afield for me
    maybe you are in UK and I am in urban California
    we have a different cultural ambience

    suppose we narrow it down to one thing: the night sky

    suppose I go to a remote village in mexico and try to find out how people experience the sky

    and then I go out in my city some evening and try to find out how people experience the sky

    it might make me sad and confuse me to do this (people in my city mostly cannot see the sky and have very little idea how wonderful it is) but suppose i do it---ask questions, make notes

    then suppose I try to relate the difference to some 2500 years of Greco-European mathematics.

    Your conjecture is that there would be some clear correlation. The sky-experience of my fellow citizens would differ in a clearcut way from that of the villagers and this clearcut difference would be partly explainable by there having been 2500 years of G-E mathematics.

    I suspect not. So this is depressing.

    However, on a more cheerful note, any language that you USE a lot, especially with children, CAN expand experience. If you use a rich vocabulary in describing snow and sensations associated with different kinds of snow, the kid will have a richer experience and be able to see more beauty in snow. Same with stars and the night sky I guess---like, the tracks of planets are evidence of a certain geometry, the milkyway shows the geometrical layout of our galaxy, you can point out where the center of the galaxy is, you can visit telescopes etc---these are ways to enrich the experienc of the sky and ways that language (including math ideas like "center" of a pancake shaped galaxy) enhances beauty.

    but most people have little experience of mathematics in their language, cannot sing 4-part harmony but prefer to watch other people singing on television, do not vote in elections, and so on
    they have voluntarily abandoned the 2500 yr GrecoEuropean culture, with its history of democratic participation in city life, geometry, polyphonic music, astronomy, enjoyment of numbers, theater, dance.
    they watch other people dance on television
    they watch a movie about a mathematician who likes numbers but do not experience numbers
    the night sky overhead usually has a hazy glow that only a few stars get thru so usually we are not really seeing the stars either

    i would rather not discuss this.

    there is a nice book called "Coming of Age in the Milky Way" by Timothy Ferris. the 2500year history of the expansion of cosmic perspective. every step along the way was made by a passionate human being. each step is of enormous value. who first discovered the distance to a star? who? how? this is our heritage but most of us dont know it. why discuss this in generalities Carla? read the book and learn every step of the way by which we came to know that we live in our galaxy
  11. Dec 10, 2003 #10
    I'll look out for the book; it sounds like it would be a good, informative read. I agree utterly with you about city night-skies being a depressive thing. I live in Australia with its fair-share of smogged night-views. However, when you get out to some of the more remote parts, the night-skies are awe-inspiring, as I imagine can be found in remote parts all around the world.

    You seem to have answered my question. There is no such thing, at least, scholastically speaking, as an intuitive physics. But you have pointed me in the direction, nevertheless, that such a thing does exist. It can exist as a spring-board, in experience and may draw heavily upon reason but is not necessarily shackled by reason. That is a good thing. If reason assists in enlarging understanding and experience, rather than shrinking either, that can only be a good thing.
  12. Dec 10, 2003 #11
    I just realised I included your entire quotes in the last two my posts. That can be ruly annoying...sorry 'bout that.
  13. Dec 10, 2003 #12


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    And I just realized I've been talking too much---should leave space for Kerrie and/or selfAdjoint to say more about intuitive physics if they've a mind to. So I erased some superfluous loquacity.
  14. Dec 11, 2003 #13
    No need for such dramatic displays of humility. Why deny your readers the right to make up their own minds as to whether what you have to say is worthy of reading?
  15. Dec 11, 2003 #14


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    Hello Carla, glad you are still around
    I think the topic "intuitive physics" has some possibilities for
    discussion---tho you seemed satisfied about yr earlier question
    and we reached closure on that.

    I think there is something to explore here but I dont know what it is,
    and so I dont know what to ask or specifically talk about

    some ideas from Kerrie and/or selfAdj. might help. other people's perspective often helps

    Here's something: many things in physics are like the distance to the sun.
    it is an important quantity, really pivotal! but you cant just look up in the sky and see it

    the fine structure constant alpha---a number somewhat like pi---is a proportion in all atoms. it is a deep proportion in nature and inherent in life chemistry and the rate the sun gives out energy and all that, very pervasive---but you cant just look at some material (a tree, some bread dough) and see it. You can SEE pi just by looking at a circle and seeing the ratio of circumf to diameter. but the ratio alpha is also in things but not directly visible

    I have this intuitive feeling about physics that what is distinctive is the HIDDEN proportions in nature, the deep proportions that (on the one hand) are very important to the workings of life and shining of stars and motions of planets etc. but (on the other hand) aren't immediately obvious.

    the distance to the sun is clearly important, if it was too close we burn up and if too far we freeze and the whole choreography and timing of things depends on it and it is the yardstick for visualizing stuff (the "astronomical unit"---jupiter is 5 AU out, 5 times the earth's distance, and neptune is 30 AU out, and so on)
    but for a long time no one even thought to ask how far the sun is!
    The distance is important but invisible!
  16. Dec 11, 2003 #15


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    Here is another hidden number (also very basic)

    It is Kepler's number 2/3
    or you can look at reciprocally as 3/2 as he did
    He called it "sesqui" which means "one and a half" in Latin
    but however, this number is infused throughout the solar system, it is
    intrinsic to all the orbits and in 1618, on May 15 according to his diary, Kepler saw it

    Say you are 27 earth years old and you want to imagine a planet where you would be just one year old right now (having lived the amount of life you have)---and would have ridden just one trip around the sun.

    where would that planet be?

    Kepler says to raise 27 to the 2/3 power----which gives 9.

    Your planet would be 9 AU from the sun. It would be 9 times farther than the earth, assuming a similar orbit.

    this number 2/3 is built into things----or, if you prefer, this number 3/2 that kepler called "sesqui"

    for him the 3/2 power was the "sesquipotence" but written in Latin of course: the planet's period was the sesquipotentia of its average distance out from sun

    for me, one of the most distinctive things about what is properly physics is that you make friends with hidden numbers which determine the deep structure of the universe

    maybe you or someone else has a different take on what the essential thing about it is
  17. Dec 11, 2003 #16
    Hi Marcus,

    Glad to see you're NOT shutting your mouth.

    I hope to be able to add something more substantial to this in the next couple of days so don't mistake my lack of response for lack of interest. Just a little run off my feet at the moment.
  18. Dec 13, 2003 #17
    Numbers or the language of numbers, has not been a very meaningful language for me. That might say it all. In physics, I am the person who lives in the tropics speaking to the person who lives in the snow, about snow. Say I reach my understanding of 'what is' by a different language, that of art, or of music or of philosophical enquiry or of deep meditation and reflection and the development of a deeply attentive ability to see or listen, could these be considered valid constructions of meaningful truth for humanity?

    If culture becomes shaped purely by the principles and axioms of a strictly scientific, empirical enquiry, are we in danger of creating exotic can-openers for a void of meaning? Whether a tale or not, is the idea of spirit more constructive to the human race than a mathematical principle which disables by its very parameters of meaning-bestowing via a very specific set of calculations. Man could find himself living on the moon or mars but is man a worthy inhabitant or merely a clever form of bacteria?

    Something pretentious, something foolish, childish, worshipful, something artful may be required in our natures to off-set the dangers of the new God, Science, in interaction between nature and human, being.
  19. Dec 13, 2003 #18


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    Since you italicize to put special emphasis on art I am trying to think of what typifies art for me----laughter can be part of delighting in works of art, but I wouldnt describe any of my favorite works as foolish. Or childish or worshipful or pretentious.
    probably not enough commonality of meaning for discussion to work.
    would need more overlap in what we think of as "art-ful" or science-ful too I should imagine. Or "god-ly" too, for that matter. :smile:
    There may be others at PF with whom you can reach a better understanding---everybody is free to define their own categories
  20. Dec 13, 2003 #19

    I am speaking of qualities of the human spirit using terms which are belittled rather than truly belittling. There need be no 'god-ly' enter into it yet for some, that will always remain a pre-requisite for meaning and what does it matter except when 'god-liness' becomes a slave-driver and a tyrant? Same with art, science or anything from which meaning is created.
  21. Dec 13, 2003 #20
    I have tried to get hold of a copy of Coming of age in the Milky Way but it seems to be out of print and I will have to order it in from overseas. Meanwhile, I bought a copy of The Anthropic Cosmological Principle by John Barrow and Frank Tippler which promises to contain an historical perspective of the development of science and cosmology. I also bought Chaos by James Gleick.

    Perhaps you have heard of or read these works yourself. If so, feel free to offer a critique or an opinion. I look forward though, to having my perspective vitalised and deepened by these people.
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