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Purge Your Brain of Three Things

  1. Sep 19, 2014 #1


    Staff: Mentor

    Laymen often have trouble understanding science, or the answers scientists provide to their questions here on PF. If you are one of those people, I have a very simple suggestion for how to start thinking like a scientist and understanding key concepts. All you need to do is to purge your brain of three wrong ideas.

    1) All questions do (or should) have answers. Personally, I never wasted two seconds worrying about unanswerable questions, but many people find that very disturbing. Some resort to philosophy or religion for those answers. The meaning of life is a prime example. What existed before the Big Bang is another. So when you learn that your question has no answer (and maybe never will) shrug your shoulders, stop worrying about it, and resist pointless speculation.

    2) Do not fixate on the exact meaning of words. The age of natural philosophy truly became the age of science, when the practitioners leaned to stop fixating on the meaning of words in natural language. Biggest among such words is infinity. One of the biggest arguments in the history of science was irrational numbers (such as 1/3 = 0.33333 with an infinite number of threes). If you think about infinity too much (especially infinities in space and time) you can quickly imagine preposterous absurd things. I recently heard a debate over science versus religion where the speaker tried to use absurdities of infinity as proof of God. Stop wasting your time doing that. Our brains are not wired to be able to visualize all things or to relate them to everyday life by analogy. Scientists are forced to use natural language even when the meaning of the words they use are an imperfect match for their message. Learn to accept that.

    3) Forget the ordinary meaning of simultaneous. Until Einstein's 1905 paper on special relativity, all of his predecessors made the same error. They assumed that observers could synchronize watches regardless of location and motion, and agree on the meaning of simultaneous. Einstein's big breakthrough was to realize that he needed a different definition of simultaneous, and that ovservers in different frames can never agree on the simultaneity of events. Internalize Einstein's definition and it will open up a whole new world for you.


    I'm sure that PF commenters can add new things to the list, but IMHO these three are the big ones.
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 19, 2014 #2
    The problem is, we don't know what is an answerable or an unanswerable question. Many common principles we understand now were once imponderable questions before....electromagnetism is just one small example.
  4. Sep 19, 2014 #3


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    Homework Helper
    Gold Member

    If it's not too late, you may wish to quickly edit your post and change 1/3 example to say, √2. An irrational number is number that cannot be represented by a ratio of natural numbers (whole numbers).

    The Pythagoreans have some history with this (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hippasus).

    (By the way, 1/3 can be written simply as 0.1 in base-3.)
  5. Sep 19, 2014 #4


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    Science Advisor
    Homework Helper

    This proposal won't work. You can't purge your brain of 3 ideas unless it already contains at least 3 ideas.
  6. Sep 19, 2014 #5
    I have problems with all three of your guidelines, but this one most of all. It's pretty much the opposite of what someone should do to think like a scientist. Physics is built on concepts that are specifically named and defined. A large number of these terms have a non-scientific, everyday usage. It's exceptionally important to "fixate on" the exact scientific usage to understand what a scientist is saying.
  7. Sep 20, 2014 #6


    Staff: Mentor

    Just the other day there was a thread in the general physics forum about "universe." The guy had heard of multiverse discussions. He was all confused because the meaning of universe in his mind was all inclusive. Scientists answered him with talk of physics, when it was obvious that he was hung up on the contradiction of the oxymoron "multiple universes".

    Oxymorons, misnomers, traditions, and historical accidents are part of natural language. Even scientists are forced to use them.

    I recall a similar nonsensical thread about some layman's idea of what "space time continuum" was supposed to mean. People get hung up on words like that.

    Think of the term "Big Bang" itself. That is a whimsical moniker for a grand concept. It's literal exact meaning is not the point, yet laymen keep trying to attach great significance to the literal meaning. My point is that it would be impossible to coin a moniker for the Big Bang concept without introducing meaningless distractions because of the choice of words.

    The word "work" is an example where zoobyshoe is correct. People need to learn how work is defined in science, and forget the everyday connotations of the word.

    The word "fundamental" appears frequently in scientific discussions. It almost always leads to misunderstandings. I believe that understanding could be improved if fundamental was expunged from our vocabulary.
  8. Sep 23, 2014 #7

    Don't fixate on the exact meaning of the word irrational, then it will make sense ;).
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