FUN Science time

Did you know science could be fun?  Yes, science.

Fun for everyone!

Archimedes did it.  Einstein did it.  Now we can do it, too.

I’m talking about doing a thought experiment.

In fact, not only a thought experiment, but a thought present for YOU.

Let’s make you rich.  Really really rich.

No, not as rich as Gates, or Buffet.  Richer.

Not as rich as Bezos or Zuckerberg.  Richer.

Not even as rich as the entire USA.  Richer.

This is a thought experiment.  We can go where it’s impossible to go.  We can go to the very extremes of possibilities.




As of this moment, there is no income, no particle of wealth, absolutely nothing of value that you don’t own.  The queen’s jewels?  Yours.  The queens toilet and toilet paper?  Yours.

That donkey raised from a pup by that Himalayan monk no one has seen for several decades?


The question for us behavioral scientists is this.  What happens next?

If economists were any good at what they did, they could answer this.  But they can’t.

In reality, you’re going to spread the wealth.  After all, you’re going to want to eat.  You might even want a companion.  All of that costs something.

People who have “your stuff” might feel that you are far enough away that they don’t have to pay you for it.  That Himalayan monk?  Chances are you’re never going to meet him.  Good luck getting that donkey back.

Of course, the incentive for anyone else to work will be diminished.  But they have to eat as well, so there’s a chance that a shadow economy will emerge, based on bartering and some other items considered valuable.  Your items of course, but how will you know?

Slowly, surely, your own wealth will be spread around, so that some kind of work will begin again.  But how quickly?

The problem is that you also own everyone’s assets.  So even if someone works in a restaurant to feed you and others, you will receive the profits.  Which means, ultimately, you get even richer.

Enough fun.  How about comparing our experiment to today?

Today’s world does have a Gates, Buffet, Bezos and Zuckerberg.  These people do have incredible levels of wealth and income compared to select individuals of the past.

How does this impact the rest of society?  Is it a good thing?

There are those who tell me that rich people are good for the rest of us.  But in the beginning there were no “rich” people.  What does that mean?

It means we need to think about this, more, better, and deeper.  And it means we need to do more thought experiments.

Careful though.  They can be too much fun!


FUN Science, Art Gallery Time Machine

Did you know science could be fun?  Yes, science.

Seems a bit spotty, doesn't it?

Archimedes did it.  Einstein did it.  Now it’s our turn.  Lets do a thought experiment.

In this experiment, we’re going to transport one of the best paintings from the impressionist era back a hundred years (give or take) so that it lands smack dab in the middle of one of the best art galleries of the romantic era.


See what we’re doing there?  We’re sticking a little bit of the future into the past, and then figuring out what would happen.

What do YOU think will happen?  Go ahead, write down your answer.  I’ll wait.

(Insert girl from Ipanema here.)

Finished?  Great.  Now, here’s my take.

It won’t sell.  No one’s going to buy it.  Everyone will think a deranged teenager did it, and will tell the dealer to throw it away.  Since it appeared mysteriously from the future, he won’t know who to give it to.  Being a profit-minded guy, he’ll probably paint it over with gesso and sell the canvas to some poor artist who will put a proper painting over it.

Crazy?  Not really.  Consider going to an art gallery today.  What do you see?  Are there crazy pieces in there that drive you bonkers?  Could it be that one of those will sell for millions of dollars in a hundred years?

How can we know?

Right now, we can’t.  There’s this whole thing about fads and fashions that seems to be beyond anything reason will fathom, ever.  Why do women prefer certain hairstyles through the ages.  What about men and their beards, or hats?  What about architecture, writing styles, music, and just about anything else you can imagine.

Until the day comes when we can at least start to describe a fashion and do it in an organized, scientific manner, there will be no hope of understanding, let alone predicting.

Until the day comes when we have a theory of behavior that contains fads and fashions within it, then even with the best descriptions in the world, we still aren’t going to make any progress.

Until then, hang onto that ridiculous object of art your Aunt Sally got you from that yard sale.  It could be worth something.  Someday.


Short Story Time: Talking Heads


Studying behavior can be fun!  We can do thought experiments, like hard-assed physicists when they bend the universe to fit the speed of light, or put their heads inside a proton in order to get to know quarks and gluons better.

Our thought experiments take the form of short stories, generally known as science fiction.  Enjoy!



Walter looked upon two graceful women in shimmering, semi-transparent robes.  They revealed enough to excite.

“He’s reacting well, like an alpha male of his time,” the older one said.  “Welcome to the future, Walter.  Not many heads made it from your era.  Yvette will be your guide for now.  I’ll be going.”  She gave instructions to the young woman and left.

Walter winced in pain.  The young lady stroked his temple and neck so gently he immediately felt at peace.

“Walter, go slowly.”  She continued stroking, and he looked her over.  She was twenty, curvaceous, and perfectly formed.  She was tall, and nothing about her calmed him.

He had a body!  He had signed up for freezing his head for centuries, until the future could cure his disease.  Now here he was!  Could he talk?

Talk he did.  As he warmed up, he asked Yvette many questions, and she answered him patiently, lovingly.

The body was built of his own cells.  They made improvements, and he would live a normal life.  His former profession was making “movies,” but there was still a need for storytellers.  He would have to learn new techniques.

He could walk now.  There were no cities, no tall building, no monorails.  These had all been deemed dangerous to the environment, Yvette explained.  Terrans lived in harmony with nature.  Machines were only found on Luna and Mars.

We colonized space? Walter asked.

“Of course.  We have also perfected our bodies and our society.  We learned how to alter DNA directly, no need for random pairings.  Every child is carefully engineered, and improved.”

No falling in love, no husband and wife?

“Wife?” she laughed.  “A concept males used to subjugate females for a million years.  No, the husband is history.”

I’m a man, I have deep feelings.  You are someone that I could easily fall in love with.

“You will find that we are all, as you would say, desirable.  Humanity is all female.  How old am I?” she demanded.  Walter shared his thoughts.  “I’m 50, my mentor over 90.”

I’m surrounded by millions of beautiful women?

“Yes, you are.  And according to history, you were quite randy, weren’t you?”

Walter confessed the truth.  But he remembered the 1960’s well, and hoped this future was as sexually enlightened.  He was looking forward to making many new friends.  Yvette laughed.

“I’m sure you are.  But the only way you can experience sexual stimulation will be through a deep brain stimulator we have implanted.  Here is your special button that only you can access,” pointing to his groin.  “We also removed your sex organs.”

Walter held onto a tree, looking at his lap.  The world spun, even as Yvette continued.  “Now, let me show you where you’ll be living for the rest of your life.”


Standing on Rice

I’m minding my own business, happily reading about how the Chinese government is using underwater archaeology to study the wrecks of a 600 year old Chinese Admiral to further their expansionist claims.  Then, out of the blue, comes this article [1] that claims the reason the Chinese didn’t invent the Industrial Revolution back in 1000 CE (AD) was because they eat rice!

Wow!  Talk about not seeing that coming.  But it’s true!

The article claims our western culture of WEIRD people (a real term meaning Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic) can thank its wheat-growing, flour-loving, bread-based lifestyle on inventing the Industrial Revolution back in the late 1700s.


No wonder our fair “science” of behavior doesn’t get very far.

You and I don’t have a lot of time together (I do try to keep these short) but here’s the condensed version of what Talhelm claims.  When given certain tests, wheat-growing chinese respond differently than rice-growing chinese.  What are these all-so-insightful tests?  Well, wheat-growers associate things “holistically” instead of in “classes.”  When drawing themselves and their friends as connected circles, “wheaters” make their own circle slightly bigger than the others.  And when describing how they would reward or punish relatives versus business partners, wheaters are likely to treat the partners more equally.

Really?  Rabbits and carrots instead of rabbits and dogs?  Bigger circles?  Don’t be so close to your family?  THAT’S why China had no Industrial Revolution?

Is it possible, just possible, that Westerners weren’t so choked by “thought police” of their day during the Renaissance allowing them to advance in fields such as physics, chemistry, and medicine?  It is possible, just possible, that deadly competitions between nations forced governments to invest and nurture pure research?  Is it possible, just possible, that our (slightly) more equitable distribution of wealth allowed for some amount of social encouragement of entrepreneurism, so that men like Jerónimo de Ayanz y Beaumont and Wedgewood and Watt knew they could take a chance and possibly realize the associated reward?

Is it possible, just possible, that the things Talhelm is measuring are the teeniest tinyest differences that really don’t amount to much?  He’s grasping at straws?

This is science, not a side show.  Science shouldn’t leave even a shadow of a doubt.  Science is the process of allowing light into every conceivable crevice.  Yet here, in a prestigious magazine, is a “Chinese” article that explains why they didn’t invent the Industrial Revolution a thousand years ago.

Hmmm.  No possible political motives here, right?

Excuse me.  I’m making toast.


[1]  This article appeared in “Science” magazine on page 603 of volume 344, published 9 May 2014.  Its title is “Large-scale psychological differences within china explained by rice versus wheat agriculture.”  Authored by T. Talhelm and 6 others, with Talhelm from Dept of Psych at the Univ of VA, Charlottesville, VA, USA.


Science Writing 104

Tired of “science” as a word?  Tired of talking about “science” as something that is only supposed to be referring to a process of learning?  Do you now notice when some talking head keeps referring to our body of knowledge as “science,” thereby making their argument sound more important than the other guy?

Then take some time off.  Watch a vid on your mobile.  Play 2048 on your tablet.  Stick some popcorn in the microwave and let it rip.  Wait a minute, what do we call all this fancy technology?

Welcome back, “science” aficionados.  Our society tends to lump all this technology into a special class of machinery that we call “science.”  The mobile, the tablet, the microwave, to many people these are all beyond their understanding.  So they like to lump it under “science.”  If you explain to them that even the lowly hammer has been improved of late, thanks to scientific methods, they won’t call the hammer “science.”  The hammer is easy to understand.

But the microwave?  That’s magic.  A pacemaker?  More magic.  Sending a machine to the edge of the solar system?  That’s ultra magic.  But we can’t call it magic, because we grow up learning that magic isn’t real.  So we call it “science” instead.  And it’s not science at all.

Science is a method of learning.  From that learning we are able to create knowledge; highly refined knowledge that takes years to learn.  Some of the people who learn this specialized knowledge go on to apply their learning to building things.  Machines, buildings, computer programs.  These people are engineers, and an engineer takes whatever knowledge they can get their hands on to build wonderful machines, like: microwaves, computers, Voyager spacecraft.

Science is a process, a means we use to learn.  The stuff we learn is knowledge, not “science.”  The stuff we build from that knowledge is, stuff! like machines, buildings, even cells.  That stuff is not “science” either.

So please be careful about how you use that word.  And when you hear it, put it into its proper place.  Like a good word engineer.