Photo by Spencer
Davis from Pexels
70 They don’t fit
At University of Chicago, my physics
professor (structure of matter course) tricked us with a
priceless lesson. The homework solution was not an exact answer.
We were to place sixteen readings into a four-by-four table so
that they filled a consistent progression of energy levels. It
was easy to sort the numbers into columns such that each number
was a fixed step lower than the number above it—except for the
last column. After I filled three columns, it was impossible to
arrange the remaining four numbers to match the pattern.
In discussing the homework solution, we
students complained, “but the numbers in the last column don’t
fit.” He wisely called our attention to the fact that these were
experimental results, not theoretical values. Real life examples
are not pre-measured, neatly ordered ideals. They are elusive
facts, exceedingly difficult to determine precisely. Our best
experimental efforts are not assured to measure exactly as
expected. In this example, he gave us a priceless life
I have reassured my readers that we
create our own worlds. I did not promise that they would
fit. From childhood we feel secure when our results match
predictably: we get the same answers as our peers; we see the
same results of our efforts; we come to the same conclusions. We
are easily trapped into thinking that if we arrive at a different
result, we must be in error.
This false dependency on security leads
to a major difficulty. Because difference threatens the security
we feel in our answers, we want everything to be in agreement, to
be the same as we think it should be. At times, the insecurity
manifests in fierce rejection of difference.
I am old enough to realize that all our
individual worlds put together will never “fit.” We might say
that we differ only in terminology, in the definitions we are
using. We claim the underlying reality is fixed and exact.
Non-fitting numbers are always experimental errors. By now I
recognize the childish oversimplification.
Science begins with “close-fitting” theories.
Michael Fowler credited Galileo (leaning
tower of Pisa experiment) with understanding that “if air
resistance and buoyancy can be neglected, all bodies fall
with the same acceleration …” The prize thinking was to
demonstrate this experimentally, not by reading classical
philosophy. However, the second article also credits Galileo with
realizing incidentally that the bodies did not quite fall
together. The most precise equipment of our day could shed
further light on the other forces at play.
Science grows up as it finds phenomena
that don’t fit established theories. Finding exceptions to
supposed rules forces us to look deeper into underlying
principles. Some scientists call progress “broken bottlenecks.”
Much of our knowledge today grew out of investigating what did
Age has taught me not to force the real
world into my precise categories. There may be a reality that is
not subject to the measuring stick I am using, and questions that
do not have exact, permanent answers. Many in the fields of
religion, politics, philosophy, even “hard sciences” have
attempted to quash “absurdities” that proved later to be
It is typical for us to crave the
security of sure answers. However, excessive dependency on the
surety of what we accept insulates us against the truth we do not
I remember vividly the conversation in my
freshman year in which a very gentle young lady, a professor’s
daughter, explained to me that what is right for me might not be
right for somebody else. Today I am inviting a vast readership to
join me in treasuring that realization. Let us put kindness above
sureness in our incomplete beliefs.
Being For Others Blog copyright © 2020 Kent Busse
Have you shared this with someone?