5 fun instances of animals illuminating scientific theories
Beginning with one that’s entirely new to me. But maybe you know it?
The White Bear Problem
Russian writer Dostoevsky summed it up neatly:“Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.” Oh yes.
No-one thought any more of Dostoevsky’s intrusive polar bear until 30 years ago when pyschologist Daniel Wegner decided to put the writer’s saying to the test. He did indeed prove that the more people were asked to suppress a thought (like the white bear), the more it cropped up in their minds. He called it the Ironic Process Theory.
Why does this happen? Apparently because two different parts of the brain are at work – against each other. While one dutifully “ignores the thought as instructed, another part intermittently calls it to mind in an attempt to ensure the thought is being successfully forgotten.” Humans not so clever after all?
From bears to butterflies-
The Butterfly Effect
The idea, as everyone knows, is that something as infinitesimal as a butterfly fluttering its wings sends reverberations across the world. Or to be more precise, a butterfly fluttering in the rainforest could result a few weeks later in a tornado thousands of miles away. That was the original concept of mathematician and meteorologist Edward Lorenz.
The butterfly was a nice metaphor for his startling discovery that by simply rounding numbers to slightly fewer decimal places than he normally did in meteorological computer calculations, the tiniest of changes, he ended up with a wildly different weather forecast.
But with real butterflies, is the Butterfly Effect true? Scientifically speaking, no. “Scientists say the actual impact of a butterfly flapping its wings would be so tiny as to be quickly absorbed by the surrounding air pressure.”
Scientists don’t know everything though, do they? This is one I’d still like to believe – but maybe without the tornado. Now for the toughie
Schrödinger’s Cat has me nodding sagely at any mention of it, “Ah yes, of course, Schrödinger’s Cat”. When truth be told, and much to my frustration, it has me completely baffled. I’ve never been able to get my head around it – until now. I think I may have got it at last – or have I? See if it makes sense to you.
It’s all about quantum physics. (Mind going blank already.) Quantum physics is about subatomic particles, which behave in very odd and unpredictable ways – apparently. So it’s absurd to try to apply quantum theory to predict how a radioactive atom will behave – apparently.
To illustrate this, your friend and mine, Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger tells us to imagine some radioactive matter in a locked box with a cat. Inside there is also a Geiger counter which as soon as it detects radioactivity, will smash open a vial of poison. And over the period of one hour there is a 50% chance of the radioactive matter starting to decay and the poor old theoretical cat being poisoned.
“Quantum theory states that subatomic particles can be in two states at once until they’re observed. Similarly, since the cat’s life depends on what’s happening inside the radioactive atom, until we look in the box the cat is theoretically both alive and dead.
For Schrödinger, this thought experiment highlighted a paradox at the heart of quantum mechanics: while a particle may be able to exist in two states, the cat must be either alive or dead regardless of whether it’s being observed – it can’t be both.”
Mmm, still not sure I get it. But at least no cat was harmed in the making of this theory.
The Hedgehog’s Dilemma
Otherwise know as the Porcupine Problem, for obvious reasons. This one is not the brainchild of a scientist, but a philosopher – Arthur Schopenhauer. But psychologists adopted it as a useful analogy, comparing the difficulties of human intimacy with two hedgehogs huddling together for winter warmth.
The closer each one in a pair of hedgehogs or porcupines (or humans) gets to the other, the more likely they are to get hurt. On the other hand, if they, and we, keep a safe distance, we all end up cold and alone.
There has to be a happy medium somewhere. Looks like these little guys may have found it.
The Infinite Monkey Theorem
Who dreamed this one up remains a mystery, but it’s all about probability. We all know the wonderful but mildly insane idea that given an infinite number of monkeys banging away on an infinite number of keyboards the complete works of Shakespeare will eventually be reproduced.
“While this is a theoretical near-certainty, the odds on it happening in reality are infinitesimally tiny. Many trillions of monkeys typing from the dawn of time to the end of the universe would be highly unlikely to manage even a Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
Sadly, Plymouth Uni arts students and lecturers – not scientists – were not content with leaving this as a fun theory. They decided to put it to the test. They installed a computer in a compound with 6 macaques. A month later they went to check what the monkeys had written: 5 pages of gobbledygook text, showing for some strange reason a marked preference for the letter ‘s’.
Good on the monkeys though – they well and truly showed what they thought of their wrongful incarceration, and indeed the entire procedure. They bashed the keyboard with a stone, and used it for a toilet.
This is all pretty frivolous stuff, I know. But with all the appalling news bombarding us daily about climate change, extinctions, destroyed habitats, hurricanes, earthquakes, droughts, floods, forest fires, a tidal wave of human and nonhuman animal suffering, the possibility of nuclear war, and acts and statements emanating from the White House which I can only call evil, sometimes we do just need a little lighthearted distraction.
Source: BBC Radio 4 – Radio 4 in Four – Six theories that use animals to explain their meanings (Stealing the cat caption is my compliment to the uncredited writer of this article)