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Curiosity: Reality is stranger than we can suppose


The title of today’s post is actually a quote from a scientist. I had to Google it if I’m being honest, but it came from J.B.S. Haldane who was actually a biologist and a mathematician, although I will today be writing about a few areas of Physics that I think fit the quote


A natural curiosity


Since we were babies we have been trying to make sense of the world we have found ourselves in. We’re born with a few measuring devices which give us some information from ‘out there’ and they are connected to a fairly impressive fleshy computer inside of our skull. Unfortunately, we are not born with a manual on how to use this equipment and so we have to muddle along on our own. After a few years of muddling, we realise there are other beings out there that can help us and that speeds things up a little bit.

By sensing light, sound, pressure, temperature, pain, balance, taste, and a few other things, we learn that there are objects out there that we can interact with. We can pick things up and when we let go they tend to move in the same direction, known as ‘down’. We can walk around things and see the other side and we can even break things into smaller pieces. After many years of this, we might think we get it all and can relax. Or… maybe we pick up a leaf and notice the detail in it, or take apart a flower, or notice that some things are heavier than others despite being the same size, or question how birds can fly, and so on. Now our curiosity has been relighted and we’re off again!




Curiosity wanes goes down, the discomfort goes up!

These waves of curiosity vary from person to person and from time to time and we learn that the world out there is much more interesting than we first thought and we might get interested in reading science, or watching Youtube videos, or coming across some online interactive simulators. After a little while, we realise that while trying to understand our mouths curl up, our forehead frowns and our eyes squint. We feel a sense of discomfort; are starting to find this difficult. We are approaching the processing limits of our fleshy computer and there are now upgrades available, at least not currently. (Read or listen to Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari if you’d like to learn more about this.)

Eventually, we realise that not only is the world out there stranger than we imagined, but it seems it might be stranger than we are even able to imagine!




We struggle to understand very large or very small numbers

You may already know that everything is made out of atoms and that these atoms often makeup molecules and so on. You may also know that atoms are made out of protons, neutrons, and electrons. But, did you know that the protons, neutrons, and electrons actually make up an extremely tiny amount of the atom?

What makes up the rest? Empty space! Atoms are 99.9999999999996% empty space! And everything is made up of atoms and so everything is 99.9999999999996% empty space! What??!! Crazy, right?

If we removed all of the empty space from a mountain, it would be the size of a sugar cube. If we removed the empty space from the average human’s body we could fit into a particle of dust!

Then there is the very large. I used this video of comparative planet and star sizes a lot when I taught about space to get across the idea of its vastness, however after a little while it became apparent that none of us were really comprehending the actual size beyond a point. We just appreciated it was very very big!


Here is another simulation by Cary Huang to show how small and how big everything is by zooming in and out. You get to click on the objects and learn more as you go very small and very big.

The nature of the very big and the very small

Then there’s the very odd science that seems to make totally wacky claims like time slowing down, particles turning into waves and waves turning into particles, and space bending?? I am talking about Special and General Relativity and Quantum Physics of course! I plan on writing a post on this topic more in the future.

Help arrives!

So, when things become difficult and strange we have to try harder. We have to concentrate and that is when a good teacher, book, video, animation, or simulator comes in handy. I have added a few of the thousands of resources that I think do an amazing job at helping you understand very difficult concepts at the end of this post.




Some Resources to help comprehend the incomprehensible:


Some Youtube Channels
Some Simulations and Games
Some Videos


A bit about the author, Paul H:

Paul is a qualified and experienced Physics, Maths, and Science teacher, now working as a full-time tutor, providing online tuition using a variety of hi-tech resources to provide engaging and interesting lessons.  He covers Physics, Chemistry, Biology, and Science from Prep and Key Stage 3 through to GCSE and IGCSE, plus teaches Physics, Maths, and Chemistry to A-Level across all the major Exam Boards.

You can enquire about tutoring with Paul here

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