Sat, 22 Feb 92 4:30:5 EST
About 6-7 years ago, I was in a philosophy class at the University of Wisconsin, Madison (good science/engineering school) and the teaching assistant was explaining Descartes. He was trying to show how things don't always happen the way we think they will and explained that, while a pen always falls when you drop it on Earth, it would just float away if you let go of it on the Moon.
My jaw dropped a little. I blurted "What?!" Looking around the room, I saw that only my friend Mark and one other student looked confused by the TA's statement. The other 17 people just looked at me like "What's your problem?"
"But a pen would fall if you dropped it on the Moon, just more slowly." I protested.
"No it wouldn't." the TA explained calmly, "because you're too far away from the Earth's gravity."
Think. Think. Aha! "You saw the APOLLO astronauts walking around on the Moon, didn't you?" I countered, "why didn't they float away?" "Because they were wearing heavy boots." he responded, as if this made perfect sense (remember, this is a Philosophy TA who's had plenty of logic classes).
By then I realized that we were each living in totally different worlds, and did not speak each others language, so I gave up. As we left the room, my friend Mark was raging. "My God! How can all those people be so stupid?"
I tried to be understanding. "Mark, they knew this stuff at one time, but it's not part of their basic view of the world, so they've forgotten it. Most people could probably make the same mistake." To prove my point, we went back to our dorm room and began randomly selecting names from the campus phone book. We called about 30 people and asked each this question:
If you're standing on the Moon holding a pen, and you let go, will it: a) float away b) float where it is or c) fall to the ground?
About 47 percent got this question correct. Of the ones who got it wrong, we asked the obvious follow-up question:
You've seen films of the APOLLO astronauts walking around on the Moon, why didn't they fall off?
About 20 percent of the people changed their answer to the first question when they heard this one! But the most amazing part was that about half of them confidently answered,
"Because they were wearing heavy boots."