Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Baby Logic and the Theory of Gravity

In the philosophy of science, Karl Popper is often attributed to being a champion of the hypothetico-deductive method of scientific reasoning.  The method goes something like this:

  • Develop a null hypothesis which suggests that an action will result in no reaction
  • Develop a series of alternative hypotheses which suggest that something specific will happen as a result of the action taken
  • Test those hypotheses by taking an action
  • Revise those hypotheses based upon the results
  • Lather, rinse, and repeat the experiment
But, really, isn’t this pretty much how we live our lives?  Sure, we don’t run around discussing our rejected hypotheses, but when you think about it, we live our lives doing little science experiments all the time.  Modifying recipes: “I can replace the baking powder in this cake recipe with baking soda, right?”; Interacting with your spouse: “You don’t mind if I skip our anniversary to watch the playoffs with the boys do you?”; Raising your baby: “If you whine and I give you what you want, you’ll stop whining, won’t you?”  Each of these scenarios is a hypothesis with an associated null hypothesis that you test and continually refine.  So, we’re all Popperians, right?  Seems kinda obvious when you really think about it.

Watching Jack develop from a helpless baby into a budding toddler makes it so clear how we live our lives according to the basic tenants of scientific philosophy.  The difference is that babies are discovering things that us adults already know, whereas adult scientists are trying to discover things we don’t yet know. But no question about it, babies are behaving in the exact way scientists do.  And, if you’ve ever known a scientist, you’ll also know that scientists often act in the exact way that babies do.

Here’s an example of one of Jack’s ongoing experiments:

If I touch this button, the Elmo phone will say “la la la la, la la la la…Elmo’s phone”.  If I touch it again, it will say “la la la la, la la la la…Elmo’s phone”.  And, again “la la la la, la la la la…Elmo’s phone”. “la la la la, la la la la…Elmo’s phone”;“la la la la, la la la la…Elmo’s phone”; “la la la la, la la la la…Elmo’s phone”. 

Any good scientist will tell you an experiment is no good if the results are not repeatable, but I sure hope the battery on that thing runs out soon…. 

But there’s another perspective on the philosophy of science that many scientists believe is more creative, is more general, and has the ability to provide bigger and better advances than the simple method described above.  Thomas Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”.  If you’re a Kuhnian, you’re a bit more of a risk-taker.  You think science progresses by leaps and bounds rather than simple linear progression.  You think objectivity limits the potential of scientific progression.
I think Jack is more Kuhn than Popper in his approach to the science of life.  In the way he learns how to interact with and manipulate his surroundings.  For example, lately, Jack has been experimenting with gravity.  We all know about gravity, Newton and the apple…and to show my age again, this is how folks in my generation learned about gravity

9.8 meters per second per second acceleration. Or, when translated into baby-talk, “fall and go boom”.  But, just as Einstein and his compatriots took Newtonian science and put it on its ear, Jack’s experiments with gravity are taking him to great new places.

You see, a few months ago, Jack learned how to climb stairs. But he couldn’t go down.  He figured if he went head first up, why not go head first down?  Well, that hypothesis got falsified pretty quickly.  From his results, he developed a new hypothesis: “If I go down head first, I get a scraped up face” which he also tested a few times.

A month or two later, with the help of his scientific mentors (parents), he learned that going down stairs is much more effective if you do it backwards.


OK, now he has this new concept: "By going backwards, I can go down things and not get hurt."  He’s been testing this hypothesis a lot on stairs and slides, but like any good follower of Kuhn, Jack’s not happy just testing and re-testing hypotheses in a linear way.  He wants to apply this ‘backwards’ concept to other contexts where gravity is involved.

So, yesterday, we’re at the playground and Jack sees an opportunity to take his science to the next level.  You see, he’s been working on some equations with the help of his mom to explore this gravity thing.  By incorporating relativity with string theory and worm-holes, he’s deduced that going backwards eliminates the pull of gravity.  But, you can only test this theory on stairs and slides for so long.  Scientific revolutions require bold ‘outside-the-box’ thinking.

I know, I know.  The coolest playgrounds always say that they’re designed for children 5-12 years old.  But, there’s no where else for a toddler to play around here.  And they have great stuff to climb on and have that cool rubberized ground to run around on.  So where else can a stay-at-home dad (SAHD) go when his son really needs to get out of the house?

So we’re at the playground and Jack sees the opportunity to test his ‘backwards gravity’ theory.

He approaches, redoes his calculations to adjust for wind-speed….

Moves himself into position.

And slowly makes the backwards descent....



He went down and did not fall and hurt himself. His theory worked!  So, while according to those boring linear Popperians who can only falsify hypotheses, not prove them, he is feeling rather confident in his theory, and is looking for new venues in which to take his backwards/wormhole/relativity/string theory of gravity to the next level.

Any advice would be more than welcome...and perhaps some ideas where we can find some grant funding for this project.

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