Science gets impeded by the messy mind

I’m fascinated by water in motion. Standing calf-deep in Michigan’s Bass Lake, I watched the diminished wake of a motorboat strike the shore and reflect outward in smaller, tighter ripples. Even a bluegill snapping after a tasty treat generated an expanding circle of ripples that reached the shore and flipped back out, joining a complex interaction of forms: the fish’s original rhythmic perturbations, the boat’s wake, the shore’s reflection of the wake – wind-formed wavelets and tiny emanations from all of these bouncing off the dock pilings.

Each of the various ripples kept its identity. The fish’s minute wave forms rode on top of the wake and back down into the valleys, unchanged, and the wake crossed its own reflection without interference. Oh, I know the physics and some of the math of these things. I know that’s what’s supposed to happen. But seeing it in action, it felt counter-intuitive – shouldn’t all these competing wave forms slam into each other and cancel out or create a chaotic mess?

Then I thought: Why would I expect these physical forces to act the opposite of how they actually do? Do such faulty assumptions arise from some innate brain function? And if so, what purpose would it serve? How could it aid in our survival?

I wonder, too, how this sort of half-cocked mis-reasoning might hinder our understanding of the world. Perhaps it took several thousand years for science to develop, not just because we hadn’t evolved the tools to create scientific models, but because there’s an anti-scientific bias to the human mind (as our dependence on religion also might indicate). Certainly, any number of “common sense” explanations of the workings of the world have proven wrong – that the world is flat, that the sun revolves around the earth, that fire represents the release of phlogiston.

We should pay closer attention to water.

Once inscrutable scientific mysteries are turning out to have fairly straightforward explanations.

In my high school chemistry and physics courses, terms like “friction,” “surface tension” and “catalyst” were surrounded by almost mystic veils. No one ever said as much explicitly, but we were led to believe that such (then) unmeasurable quantities, which lay below the level of the observable, operated by principles different from those of standard, formulated physical law.

I especially recall friction, which was linked with inertia: Bodies at rest don’t move because … well, they don’t want to; you have to kick their butts to overcome friction and inertia and get them going. I don’t know the official line on at-rest inertia these days, but friction – examined at the molecular and atomic level using advanced microscopes – turns out to be simple and direct.

Atoms and molecules on the surfaces of two objects in contact get in each other’s way, physically, and attract one another through hydrogen bonding and similar small forces. Long, snaky molecules sticking up from a surface get caught on most anything that passes by (the snakiest of these form adhesives). And any two objects, of like or different composition, form surface bonds between their respective atoms under pressure – even just the pressure of gravity.

In high school, catalysts were treated as big-brother entities that caused chemical reactions to proceed at a faster rate while themselves remaining “unchanged.” “Unchanged” meant that the catalysts didn’t react with the compounds they influenced, but rather exerted an almost mystical controlling force upon them. But it turns out that catalysts actually form transient compounds with the reactants they influence, then release the product – a cycle repeated thousands or millions of times each second.

These micro-recapitulates-macro examples make me wonder how quantum theory will shake out over the next 50 years. A variety of cogent mathematical arguments indicate that, at the subatomic level, particles cannot behave according to the laws of classical or Einsteinian physics. Yet who, 50 years ago, would have thought that friction would depend on a microscopic reflection of known forces and known physical reactions? Will it turn out that electrons, despite Heisenberg, aren’t doing anything quite as arcane as we suppose?

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