A Canine’s Understanding of Physics
By John R. Erickson posted at http://www.worldmag.com February 20, 2016
In high school I didn’t do well in math and science. Part of the reason was that I had an artistic temperament and no aptitude for numbers. I was also a lazy student, cared little about grades, and rarely cracked a book at home. In geometry, algebra, and chemistry, I walked the edge.
At the University of Texas, I pursued a degree in liberal arts. There, a student could hide from the harsh demands of math and science. Or so I thought. In my senior year I had to take a course in physics— the section for poets and dreamers.
The professor was a serious man of science and would have been happy working in a lab crammed with wires, tubes, flashing monitors, and no human beings. He could hardly disguise his fury that the dean had dumped this class of ninnies into the middle of his busy career.
I sat in silence most of the semester but finally worked up the courage to ask one question: “Sir, if you went to the far end of the universe and stuck your finger through the edge, where would it be?” His eyes bulged. He filled his lungs with fresh oxygen and roared, “Science has made enormous progress, precisely because we don’t ask ridiculous questions!”
I didn’t trouble him with any more liberal arts nonsense. I did my homework and escaped with a ‘C’ but can’t say I learned much about physics.
Years later I awoke to the fact that, after six years of college, I remained an ignoramus about science. I didn’t expect to do the work of engineers but did regret I had squandered opportunities to absorb some of the ideas thrown off by scientific theories— for example, the difference between the universe described by Newtonian physics and the one described by Niels Bohr, Erwin Schrodinger, and the other pioneers of quantum mechanics.
For several years I made this the focus of my reading, starting with a layman’s guide to Einstein’s work on relativity. The footnotes in one book led to others. I read dozens of books on the new physics, underlined passages, and made notes in the margins. After finishing a book, I wondered if I understood any of it.
I drew some comfort from a statement made by a prominent theoretical physicist who said, “We don’t understand it either.” Apparently, the strange events predicted by quantum mechanics occur at speeds and locations that humans can access only through mathematics or thought experiments. The world we experience every day is overwhelmingly Newtonian.
Several weeks ago I was throwing a ball so that our dog could chase it, then bring it back and nag me into throwing it again. Her name is Dixie. She is a ranch dog, a blue heeler, a breed that is adapted to working with livestock. She is also a fanatic about chasing balls. I have never known a dog that was so obsessed.
Most of the time, I submit. I throw balls and kick balls to satisfy her neurotic compulsion. But one day it occurred to me, in a flash, that this dog was operating with a highly developed understanding of Newtonian physics.
Example 1. Dixie has several toys in her inventory: a tennis ball, a ball made of hard rubber, a ball made of soft rubber, a rubber bone, and, in an emergency, a stick. When I throw one of these objects, it follows an arc back to the earth, but on hitting the ground, each responds in its own unique manner. The hard rubber ball is made of a material that causes it to bounce higher than a tennis ball. The soft rubber ball gives a modest bounce, and the stick and rubber bone don’t bounce at all.
As I recall from my physics class, the height of the bounce is an expression of “collision phenomenon,” and is determined by gravity, velocity, the shape of the object, and the density of the material it’s made of. An engineer with a laptop can enter numbers into an equation that will predict the height of the first, second, and third bounces.
Dixie does it without equations or a laptop. She might miscalculate on the first bounce, but after that, she’s got it down.
Example 2. My writing office has a screened porch, and during a writing session of four hours, I will walk out on the porch to stretch my legs. If Dixie is with me, she always has a toy. She drops it at my feet, locks me in her gaze, and waits for me to give it a kick. In the small area of the porch, a ball will make contact with a wooden wall, bounce, hit another wall, and bounce again. The composition of the ball either amplifies or diminishes the bounce.
This dog is a genius at calculating a collision phenomenon in a closed area, making adjustments for each of the balls in her inventory. In a split second, she predicts the ball’s path and snaps it out of the air.
Example 3. When I loft a high fly ball and send Dixie on a chase, the ball sometimes eludes her and rolls to a stop in weeds. She won’t rest until she finds it. It took me a while to see the significance of this. She never assumes that the ball melted into the earth, went into orbit, was stolen by a troll, or disappeared into another dimension of time and space.
During the Middle Ages, a human being who lost a ball might have explained it as the work of elves, the devil, or bad fairies. Dixie is utterly convinced that if the ball rolled into a patch of weeds, it will remain there until she finds it. That is the outcome predicted by Newtonian mechanics. She is hard-wired into that view of the universe, and she will find the ball, even if it takes her an hour of sniffing…
How does a dog acquire an understanding of physics?
Did dogs have knowledge of Newtonian mechanics before Newton? Where did it come from?
How does a dog make those dozens of calculations about a collision phenomenon, in an instant, then make the calculations for leaping, opening and positioning its mouth, and snagging the ball out of the air?
And most vexing, if Dixie mastered these disciplines without attending classes or reading a stack of books, how can I defend the position that I’m smarter than my dog? Somehow, that’s important.
My old physics professor would have dismissed these questions as ridiculous, but I suspect that Sir Isaac Newton would have been amused. He might have said, “I refer you to Genesis 1:1. It’s only one sentence, but it explains a lot of things.”
Genesis 1:1 — In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
Psalm 139:14 — I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.
Psalm 104:24 — How many are your works, Lord! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.
He prayeth best, who loveth best; All things great and small; For the dear God who loveth us; He made and loveth all.
–Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798)
All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful,
The Lord God made them all.
Each little flower that opens,
Each little bird that sings,
He made their glowing colours,
He made their tiny wings.
All things bright …
He gave us eyes to see them,
And lips that we might tell,
How great is God Almighty,
Who has made all things well.
All things bright …
—All Things Bright and Beautiful, verses 1, 2, 7; From Hymns for Little Children (1848), by Cecil Frances Alexander (1818-1895)
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