That’s no moon!

Darth Giraffe

How is Darth Giraffe holding his light sabre? We may never know...

Itook my umbrella to London the other day in order to prevent it from raining. It was Mrs Cobra’s idea, she reminded me that Murphy’s Law means that if I don’t take it, I will end up more drenched than a drowning kitten. Likewise, in order to raise the temperature a few degrees I had the foresight to wear my winter jacket. Basically, I HAVE THE POWER! Muuuhahahahaha! Using nothing but the power of my mind, I molded the weather to sheer perfection. What is it that makes us believe that our actions affect the universe around us like that? Why should the presence of MY umbrella change the weather? What about the OTHER guy on the train who forgot his umbrella? Will an angry looking mini-cloud follow him around all day soaking him to the bones each time he steps outside?

We all seem to move through our lives believing that the force is strong in us: jumping in the bath will make the postman turn up with the parcel, ordering another pint will result in the delayed flight suddenly being “last call”, organising a BBQ will ensure that the hot weather breaks and the garden get watered, shaking the dice in a particular way will make a difference in the results… and it was that last one, the dice roll, that really got me thinking. I read a blog post where a chap called Juuso asked if he was a rational person for, as he put it, ‘putting effort’ into rolling a dice. I made a couple of comments but the whole thing vexed me (in a Khaaaaaaaaaaan! sort of way) for way too much time. I was chatting to some friends about the oddities in the brain that allowed us to believe that such rituals made any difference when one of them used a sentence involving the word ‘quantum’ – and we all know, when the word quantum is invoked, we’re all in deep trouble.

Let us take two silly examples. When I play Risk, Monopoly or Settlers of Catan I generally spend more time shaking the dice using my “secret method” than actually playing. And by “secret method” I mean just the right angles, length of time, chants and holding the cupped dice up to the side of my head just before finally rolling them. Needless to say, there is no statistical evidence to suggest that this works. Likewise, the time I invest gritting my teeth whilst shaking the scrabble letters bag… what the hell do I hope to achieve there? Am I hoping that the finer details of gravity will sort ‘heavy’ letters like M and W to the bottom whilst raising the ‘light’ ones like I and J to the top? Have I totally taken leave of my marbles? I am pretty sure I would have a cracking time explaining that to a shrink if I was stupid enough to ask one.

I potentially justified this by suggesting it is to do with the brain’s planning habit. We plan continuously: both forwards and backwards in time. After an event, for example, do you find yourself imagining how it might have turned out if you had done something different? Do you think “and if only I had said ‘and THAT was why the piano was missing it’s pedals’ it would have been brilliant”. Replaying and replaying events and imagining different outcomes to consider how one might approach it in the future appears to be normal. Then there is the future: considering the various outcomes of decisions that are about to be made. In the case of dice, though, the brain does not realise that such considerations are UTTERLY FUTILE

Or are they?

Do we actually possess The Force?

Were they the droids that we were looking for, after all?

Image credit Threepwood @ B3TA
"Those who are not shocked when they first come across quantum theory cannot possibly have understood it" -- Niels Bohr

Ok, so it is not with mitoclockweights or whatever that stuff is in Star Wars, but do we actually influence the outcome of events MERELY BY OBSERVING THEM? Is there something amazing going on at a quantum level that we do not yet understand? And even if there is, will that understanding ever lead to an ability to control it? Who knows, but there is much for us to learn: as Richard Feynman said in 1965, “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics” and I think I can safely say that this is true today. The problem with observation changing the outcomes is that it would appear to be impossible to observe what would happen without the observation.

We may not know about observational influence on our day to day lives now, but we will: it is a foolish man who bets against scientific progress based on today’s perceived limitations and impossibilities. Suggesting in the mid 50s that one day, you would be able to fit ten thousand transistors onto something the size of a fingernail would, at best, have got you laughed out of the room or more likely denounced as a witch or bundled into the back of a nondescript white van for transport to a “more comfortable location”. In the end, Intel was slapping 30 million of ’em onto something that size in 2001 and the latest and greatest exceed a billion. Those that believe something to be impossible in their lifetime should agree not to use it should it be invented. It would suck to be that person if the invention was teleporters, anti-gravity, faster-than-light travel or immortality, eh?

Anyway, I’m off to confuse storm troopers looking for droids and Darth Giraffe is disturbed by your lack of faith, young blogreader.

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8 Responses to That’s no moon!

  1. Montaigne says:

    My favourite is the belief that people are able to turn on street lamps through their aura. Everyone has walked under a street lamp at night only for it to suddenly come on and it is very difficult to keep ignoring those as coincidences, even when, intellectually, you know that is what it is.

    Perhaps it is as much down to pattern recognition as anything. Humans find patterns in everything and you only need to incorrectly identify a pattern in a certain way when you roll some dice for you to create a scenario where you are more likely to look for other perceived patterns in dice rolls.

    In the end it all becomes a self fulfilling prophecy as each pattern is more likely to be perceived because of the previous pattern and each new pattern perceived reinforces the previous pattern.

    • Chief Cobra says:

      A very good point: we see patterns where there are no patterns. If something looks like something, it must be that something. This is the kind of thing that leads us to believe that there is a face on Mars (and baffleingly some people still believe that despite higher resolution more recent pictures that quite clearly show otherwise).

      And then there is coincidences as you say. I seem to recall Richard Dawkins (or at least I think it was him) talking about coincidences: there are so many people doing so many things that things like this happen all the time – so yes, intellectually, you know it’s just that, but as you say… it’s mighty tempting to think otherwise sometimes.

  2. Montaigne says:

    When I was a teenager one of my English teachers remarked about how amazing it was that he happened to be sat next to an old school chum of his, entirely by accident, at the train station.

    I pointed out that whilst it may seem amazing, how many people had he known in school? Indeed how many people has he known in his life in general? Add up all those people and all their movements and he has probably been in the same locale as many other people he once knew but without realising it/without spotting them (I was a bit of a killjoy as a teenager lol).

    I always find it fascinating that the moon is exactly the right size and of exactly the right distance away to completely cover the sun and cause total solar eclipses. If I was a religious man I would use this as an argument for design.

    In reality it may seem an extraordinary coincidence to us but with the trillions upon trillions of stars in the universe a certain percentage of them will have moons that occlude the sun regularly. Even if it is a rare occurrence, with so many planets and moons out there you could still count it in the millions and if you restrict it to those with life on you would still have 10’s of thousands of civilisations amazed that their moon just happens to be the right size and the right distance from their planet to give them total solar eclipses.

    • Chief Cobra says:

      Along the same lines as the moon being the right size, Douglas Adams had this to say:

      “Imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, “This is an interesting world I find myself in — an interesting hole I find myself in — fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!” This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it’s still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything’s going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for. We all know that at some point in the future the Universe will come to an end and at some other point, considerably in advance from that but still not immediately pressing, the sun will explode. We feel there’s plenty of time to worry about that, but on the other hand that’s a very dangerous thing to say.”
      Speech at Digital Biota 2, Cambridge, UK, (1998)

  3. Montaigne says:

    The Richard Dawkins quote sounds more like a Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy Quote.

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