About 6-7 years ago, I was in a philosophy class at the University
of Wisconsin, Madison (good science/engineering school) and the teaching assistant was
explaining Descartes. He was trying to show how things don't always happen the way we
think they will and explained that, while a pen always falls when you drop it on Earth, it
would just float away if you let go of it on the Moon.
My jaw dropped a little. I blurted "What?!" Looking around
the room, I saw that only my friend Mark and one other student looked confused by the TA's
statement. The other 17 people just looked at me like "What's your problem?"
"But a pen would fall if you dropped it on the Moon, just more
slowly." I protested.
"No it wouldn't." the TA explained calmly, "because
you're too far away from the Earth's gravity."
Think. Think. Aha! "You saw the APOLLO astronauts walking
around on the Moon, didn't you?" I countered, "why didn't they float away?"
"Because they were wearing heavy boots." he responded, as if this made perfect
sense (remember, this is a Philosophy TA who's had plenty of logic classes).
By then I realized that we were each living in totally different
worlds, and did not speak each others language, so I gave up. As we left the room, my
friend Mark was raging. "My God! How can all those people be so stupid?"
I tried to be understanding. "Mark, they knew this stuff at one
time, but it's not part of their basic view of the world, so they've forgotten it. Most
people could probably make the same mistake."
To prove my point, we went back to our dorm room and began randomly
selecting names from the campus phone book. We called about 30 people and asked each this
1. If you're standing on the Moon holding a pen, and you let go,
will it a) float away, b) float where it is, or c) fall to the ground?
About 47 percent got this question correct. Of the ones who got it
wrong, we asked the obvious follow-up question:
2. You've seen films of the APOLLO astronauts walking around on the
Moon, why didn't they fall off?
About 20 percent of the people changed their answer to the first
question when they heard this one! But the most amazing part was that about half of them
confidently answered, "Because they were wearing heavy boots."