Chapter 3: Symbols And the Real World

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Children Stories  |  House: Booksie Classic

Reads: 197

A: You were going to tell me if Batman is real.

M: That’s right!  So let’s think this through.  Batman doesn’t have superpowers, so in principle there could be a Batman.

A: But there isn’t, right?

M: He’s imagined, but he’s had more of an impact than many living people.

A: Why was Batman invented?

M: Don’t you like him?

A: Yes, I do, but why not talk about a real person?

M: Real people are more complicated.  They make more mistakes.  You can imagine somebody who doesn’t make mistakes.

A: Are there real people who don’t make mistakes?

M: Rosa Parks made very few mistakes.

A: The woman who didn’t get up on the bus?

M: That’s right Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white person, and she became a symbol to the civil rights movement.

A: So why aren’t there more people like Rosa Parks?

M: Often the people who symbolize something had some bright idea that nobody else had.  Having a bright idea doesn’t mean they were the nicest people.

A: Rosa Parks had a bright idea too!

M: She actually wasn’t the first black person to have the idea not to get up from her seat.  There were some people before her but the civil rights movement picked her because she was so nice.  It’s an unusual situation.  She was picked as a symbol.

A: At least she was real.  You should like it when real people are used rather than imagined people because you like science.

M: Science doesn’t say that you can’t imagine things.  In physics people imagine things all the time.  Have you heard of Schrödinger’s Cat?

A: You mean this cat that is half alive and half dead?

M: Sort-of.  It’s a cat for which we don’t know if it’s alive or dead.  In reality, it’s only small particles, like atoms, that can be in a state where nobody can know if it’s one or the other.  Strictly, cats can’t be in that state because they aren’t so small.

A: So then Schrödinger’s Cat doesn’t exist?

M: That’s right.  It’s what’s called a thought experiment.  We try to see if we understand a theory by exploring what that theory may mean.  It helps us understand the theory, and it also helps us imagine things that are too small to see.

A: Isn’t it confusing if science tries to figure out what’s correct, and then uses things that aren’t possible?

M: The thing is that we know so little about what’s correct that it’s very important for us to train our imagination.  It’s very common that people say: “This must be right because I see it”.  Physics often helps explaining to people why they see things differently from how they really are.

A: What do you mean?

M: When we drive in summer, have you ever thought that there was water on the road, although it wasn’t raining anywhere near?

A: Yes!  How do you know that!  I’ve wondered about that!

M: When the sun shines, the road can get very hot, and that means that a hot layer of air may be above the road.  Light reflects from that hot air layer in much the same way as it would if there was rain on the road.  It’s easy to explain, but you first have to be willing to believe that what you see isn’t what’s there.  Can you think of other things that you see and that aren’t there in that way?

A: Are rainbows really there?

M: That’s a great example.  Rainbows look like they are there, and all people who look from the same place as you do see them there.  But if you go to a different place you don’t see them the same way.  There are many more such examples.

A: I can’t think of any other.

M: Even mirrors and looking glasses are a bit like that.  Just because you see yourself in a mirror doesn’t mean there really is a second copy of you in the mirror.  Or just because your hamster looks huge through a looking glass doesn’t mean that he is huge.

A: Those are sort-of obvious though.

M: Many differences between what we see and what is there are far from obvious.  That’s why there are so many sightings of UFOs and things like that.  People think that what they see must be there.

A: Physicists must be great at figuring out how magicians do their tricks!

M: Ha ha, you wish.  Magicians actually like to perform tricks in front of physicists because they usually don’t understand what magicians do.  There’s a lot of experience in doing magic tricks.  The best people to uncover what magicians really do are other magicians.

A: Then what does it help to do physics?

M: Magicians are good at figuring out the specific tricks that are suitable for a performance on stage.  Physicists deal with much of the rest of what people call magic.  Specialists are usually better for specialists’ jobs, but scientists can still work in areas that are so new that there are no specialists.  It’s not just physicists.  Psychologists, statisticians, and many others try to figure out where our perception may be different from reality.

A: Things can’t be so different from how they look though!

M: We should look at some optical illusions.

A: Oh well, now that you say that I do remember seeing some in school.  But most of the time things are the way we see them, right?

M: I wouldn’t say that.  Things would look different if our eyes allowed us to see different types of light.  Do you know how many types of light there are?

A: You mean visible, infrared, and ultraviolet?  So I’d say there are three types of light.

M: Light is made of electromagnetic waves just like sound is made of waves of moving matter.  If you wanted to know how many different sounds there are, you could look at the number of octaves on a piano.  Do you know how many there are?

A: I think it’s something like seven.

M: That’s about right.  Do you know the difference between frequencies of sounds that are one octave apart?

A: They sound similar.

M: That’s because the higher one has exactly two times the frequency of the lower one.  For electro-magnetic radiation we can measure almost 50 octaves, so that shows you how many different frequencies there are.

A: That’s a lot!  That would be a huge piano.

M: Now tell me:  How many of those octaves correspond to light that we see?

A: Well we don’t see the infrared or the ultraviolet light, so I’d say maybe 20?

M: We see a single octave of that light!  Dark blue light has about twice the frequency of red light.  Anything higher or lower we can’t see directly.  We can still measure it but we can’t see it.

A: Just one octave?  Are you sure?  So what’s going on for all the light that we don’t see?

M: We use some of those frequencies, like radio waves.  People used to consider radio waves as magic.  Then there’s the remote control for the TV.  That’s infrared.

A: So how can you imagine all those things that you can’t see?

M: It’s training.  Physicists also use a lot of symbolic representations to talk about things they can’t see.  Using the piano to explain frequencies was an example of a symbol.

A: Could you build a piano that lights up that way?

M: Sure, but you’d only see one of the octaves.  The rest would be invisible.  There are other symbols too.  Physicists they draw atoms as if they had something like a blackberry in the middle and circles with beads around them.  That’s not really what atoms look like but since we can’t see them we need symbols.  So in that sense religions aren’t so different from science.  Scientists draw atoms like blackberries and religious people refer to love through the symbol of Jesus.

A: So why does this Jesus symbol bother scientist?

M: Not all scientists are bothered by Jesus as a symbol.  Many scientists are Christians, and even those who aren’t often don’t mind it if Jesus is used as a symbol of peace.  The problem is that unfortunately Jesus is often used as a symbol of intolerance towards those who don’t believe in him.  So it’s not the symbolism itself that’s the problem.  It’s the message.

A:  Do you think Batman is a good symbol?

M: I think that the people who have created Batman have tried very hard to see people the way they are.  I think Batman stands for integrity more than many other symbols.

A:  Is God a symbol?

M: The God of Fairness is a symbol.  I’d call the Christian God a symbol as well.  The situation is a little more complicated because some people do believe that he has the power to decide whether they will go to heaven or to hell.  Even if there is no such supernatural being, the Christian God is still a symbol.

A: You really like symbols, don’t you?

M: I think they are a great way of talking about things that are hard to understand.

Submitted: March 28, 2015

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