INSTINCTIVE PHYSICS….Thoreau, whose physics conference is not electrifying him at the moment, asks:

Would intelligent aquatic creatures with opposable thumbs ever develop Newtonian mechanics?

Answer: Sure, but they wouldn’t have anything to write it down on, so they’d soon forget. In any case, Thoreau brings up this momentous topic as an excuse to observe that our natural surroundings influence our instinctive view of physics. For example:

With air resistance it’s not at all obvious that gravity accelerates all objects at the same rate. It took a long time for these things to be figured out, after careful experiments in which different phenomena were separately quantified and/or minimized.

This is something that’s puzzled me for a while. If you drop a rock and an olive leaf over a cliff, then sure, the rock will hit the ground first. And that might lead to confusion. But if you toss a big rock and a somewhat smaller rock over a cliff, they’ll both hit the ground at about the same time. And frankly, the Greeks were plenty smart enough to have tried this. So why didn’t they? And that’s not to mention the jillions of folks in between Aristotle and Galileo who apparently didn’t try it either. Or even Galileo himself, who didn’t drop cannonballs off the Leaning Tower of Pisa, which would have been simple and easy, but instead used the cockamamie pendulum route to figure out how things worked.

And what about Avicenna and his contemporaries? They rooted around in territory that was close to Newtonian mechanics, but did they ever figure out that heavier objects don’t fall faster than lighter ones? Or the Chinese? Supposedly they invented everything, but did they ever try dropping a pair of printing presses off the Great Wall?

Any historians of science out there? What’s the deal with the apparent failure to perform such a butt simple experiment over the course of 20 centuries?

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!