Objects in the Mirror…

It goes far beyond the familiar warning about objects in our rearview mirrors, by now. I hate to tell you this, but all sorts of objects, everywhere, might not be anything like they appear.

I’ve been reading a book that my friend Ron recommended, called The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives, by Leonard Mlodinow. By a few pages in, I loved it so much, I wanted to weep. Give me a book about geeky-fascinating, blow-your-mind science stuff, and I’m a goner.

The book is about (and do NOT run away here – I’m getting ready to tell you some funky-cool things) probability theory, chance, and how psychological illusions cause us to misjudge the world around us – not because we are stupid or gullible, but because these illusions are so powerful.

I think of it this way: our complex psychological and emotional makeup constantly interferes with our ability to analyze data and use pure reasoning. But also, we exist in both a microscopic world and a macro universe, the scopes of which are virtually impossible for most of us to grasp.

Our elegant brains are simply hard-wired to misinterpret data. Here are a few examples.

Our perceptions of probability and cause & effect are skewed.

We tend to think, in our own lives and in the world at large, that an event is either more or less likely to occur because it has (or has not) happened recently. (We think: “Her luck has run out…” “He is due…”) This is the same reasoning behind the hiring and firing of CEO’s or studio heads, when they’ve had a run of several good or bad years/movies.

We – and executive boards, and recruiting agents, and on and on – reason that results are based on performance…isn’t this what we’ve been taught, all our lives? But, as has been mathematically proven (and the book goes into great detail on this), much of what happens in the world is the result of randomness – the result of what is called “Bernoulli’s theorem” (after a 17th-century mathematician) or “the law of large numbers.”

Of course, Kobe Bryant’s talent allows him to perform much better in the NBA than, say, my neighbor Sandra would. But Kobe’s individual performance from game to game, or season to season, or throughout his career, is due almost exclusively to chance, and not to fluctuations in his abilities. This might sound like hooey, but it’s a scientific fact.

Success, as it turns out, really is most often a matter of repetition. Bad news for the exceptionally talented of this world. Fantastic news for the exceptionally dogged.

Our perceptions of relevance, and our interpretation of statistics, are skewed.

During the O.J. Simpson murder trial, it was an accepted fact that Nicole Brown had been previously battered by O.J. So one of the arguments that the defense team pulled out was this: Of the 4 million women who are domestically battered each year, only about 1 in 2,500 are killed by their partners.

This was a true fact. It was a very convincing argument, to the jury. And on an intuitive level, it appeared to be completely and totally relevant to the O.J. case.

But it wasn’t.

Why not? Well, the previous statistic dealt with women who are NOT killed – and Nicole most definitely had been killed. The relevant statistic (and one the prosecution failed to bring up) was this: of all the battered women in the U.S. who are killed (and Nicole was part of this category), 90 percent of them are killed by their abuser.

The first (irrelevant) statistic created such a powerful illusion, it helped convince the jury to acquit a double-murder defendant.

Our perception of logic is skewed.

Here’s a fun example of the way our brains resist reality, from The Drunkard’s Walk.

Let’s say you know that someone has twins, and you wish to determine the likelihood that both children are girls. If you don’t know the gender of either child, then the chance that they are both girls is 1 in 4. Sounds logical, right?

Moving along, let’s say you find out that at least one of the children is a girl. Now the chance of them both being girls increases to 1 in 3. (Still sounds right.)

However, if you are told that one of the children is a girl named Florida (!), then the chances of them both being girls increases to 1 in 2.

Whoa, whoa, whoa, back that train up.

How can this be? How can one girl’s strange-sounding name affect the odds on the gender of the other child?

And yet, as Mlodinow painstakingly proves over a few pages, this outlandish statement is an absolute fact. In this example (and in so many others, throughout the book), my own instincts for mathematical reasoning completely failed me.

Moving away from The Drunkard’s Walk

Our perceptions of space and time are skewed.

As we’ve all heard, we (and everything else in the universe) are not moving in a linear way through space and time, from point A to point B; instead we are moving through four dimensional space-time, a concept that even Stephen Hawking calls “impossible to visualize.”

When we look at the sun, we are seeing it in the past, as it existed eight minutes ago – but since everything we perceive comes to us via signals (which require time to travel), even as you read these words, you are looking at your computer screen as it existed in the past (infinitesimally so, of course.)

We’re not just “lost in space,” peeps – we’re lost in time.

Our perception of reality might even be skewed!

The more you start thinking about all these problems with perception, the more widespread you realize they are. Indeed, this recent article from Discover Magazine suggests that our entire universe might be – are you ready for this? – a giant hologram.

This theory will never be proved in our lifetime, of course, but it certainly dovetails nicely with the Christian belief that this world is but a pale twin of another dimension, the “real” reality that is our eternal destination.

(And may I humbly submit: if you are someone who rejects the concept of God and/or Christian beliefs because they seem too far-fetched, too “hocus-pocus” for practical people, then you haven’t been paying attention to the world of science in the last decade. From space exploration to theoretical physics and everything in between, the physical laws of this universe are far wackier than anyone ever imagined. You can still have personal objections to Faith, if you like – but you really can no longer reject it on intellectual grounds.)

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I’ve barely scratched the surface here – but it sure would be nice if this information made us think twice, the next time we want to dig in our heels about our points of view on something. Because chances are very good that our perception is flawed – that there are factors we haven’t considered, or aren’t even aware of.

If mankind understood this concept, it would deliver a death sentence to arrogance of every sort – intellectual, spiritual, societal.

And that would be a very, very good thing.

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A Magnificent Mind

It would have been so, so easy to dismiss him as useless. And many did, at first.

His father died when the boy was still in the womb, and his grieving mother gave birth to him early. He was a runty little thing whom nobody expected to survive.

He lived, but when he was three his mother remarried and trotted off to start a new family, leaving the toddler in the care of his grandmother for years.

The boy wasn’t a good student, and when he was a teenager, he was sent to work in the fields of the family farm, where he nearly drove everyone mad with his ineptness.  There were whispers that he was not quite right in the head. Unable to concentrate on the simplest tasks, he would wander the fields, staring at nothing, or fiddle with piles of rocks, allowing the sheep he was tending to escape.

It’s safe to say, in other words, that no one would have guessed that 350 years later, the brightest scientists in the world would still be referring to the boy’s mental gifts as “divine.”

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I’ll be honest. I tend to swoon a little, when it comes to smart-ies. Continue reading

Into the (Not So) Deep

Hollywood has a long and fruitful history of making disaster movies that feature large quantities of humans being wiped out by “off-planet” forces: asteroids, solar flares, aliens, and so forth. From Armageddon to Deep Impact to War of the Worlds to Independence Day, we eat this stuff up like candy.

So how many people in history have been killed by space matter or aliens?

None. (Well, there was a dog that was allegedly killed by a meteorite in Egypt in 1911. But the single eyewitness account was pretty sketchy, so the story is considered to be the Egyptian version of crop circles, or Bigfoot.)

How about people being killed by events originating from this volatile, molten planet we live on? Well, last year alone, the figure was over 250,000.

You’d think we would have examined this place a little more closely. Continue reading

Japan’s Nuclear Crisis – a Q&A

Last night, I read this statement on CNN’s website: “A nation on the brink, Japan is coping with three disasters at the same time: a major earthquake, a sweeping tsunami and a deepening nuclear crisis. Any one of these would bring a country to its knees.”

The human, environmental, and financial impact of these disasters (only one of which is partially man-made) are staggering and heart-wrenching. Medical teams that flew into Japan, to help with the rescue efforts from the earthquake and tsunami, are now fleeing the country because of the nuclear crisis. Survivors who desperately need assistance are being abandoned in their hour of greatest need. Continue reading

We Are Who-ville

I used to think Planet Earth was a pretty big place. That was before I gained a little perspective.

A few months ago, my husband and I were driving to a friend’s house. While looking up at a streaky afternoon sky, I was jabbering on about how far away the moon was, since it was already visible. (I had only recently started reading up on the subject, and the whole thing was freaking me out, quite frankly.)

When I mentioned how big our galaxy is, my husband paused for a moment, then proclaimed, “We are Who-ville!”

And that’s a very good way to wrap your mind around it. Remember the book Horton Hears a Who by Dr. Seuss? Our Earth (which seems so very, very huge to us), is equivalent to a speck on a clover being carried around by an elephant on top of something else that is the size of our Earth.

Except, actually, we’re much, much smaller than that. Continue reading

A Great Chef

My cashier at the grocery store was a young guy with a freckled complexion and tousled hair, maybe 20 years old, and he was talkative. The minute I reciprocated his greeting, I learned the following: he was fine; he was almost done with work; that fact was sort of good, but sort of not, because he’d only worked 4 hours that day, because he was only part-time. I asked if he was in school. He said he wasn’t, because he couldn’t afford it yet, but he was saving up for cooking school. He scanned and bagged quickly as he talked.

In answer to my question, he told me there were a few good cooking schools around: the Culinary Institute of America, in Portland, and the Cordon Bleu, although that one was too expensive. “Over-priced,” he reiterated. He told me about the cooking shows he watches, on TV.

“See what I do,” he said, “is take regular ingredients and make something of them. We’ve never had a lot of money but…well, the other night…” and then he eagerly rattled off a list of ingredients he’d used to make an ordinary pasta dish sing.

“Well, maybe you’ve got a good palate,” I encouraged. “They say that’s the most important thing.”

He was so hopeful, so sweet. I wanted to speak with him longer, but the next customer was pressing in behind me. The boy continued to talk even as I reluctantly inched away. I wish I could offer to sponsor him, I thought.

I loved the eager light in his eyes, his unusual dreams. I loved that he wasn’t just listlessly jamming groceries in a bag. Of course, I have no idea if he has any real talent; no idea how far he can really go. Maybe he’ll end up cooking dinners for his family, or frying bacon and eggs at the local IHOP.

Or just maybe, he’s the next Thomas Keller. Continue reading

The Great Flu (no, not mine)

It may not surprise you to learn that natural disasters greatly intrigue me.

I own books about the Krakatoa volcanic explosion of 1883, the Johnstown Flood of 1889, and the Galveston Hurricane of 1900. My “purchased but un-read” shelf holds a book about the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Give me a disaster, and enough time, and I’ll research it.

(I also have books about the sinkings of the Titanic, the Lusitania, and the USS Indianapolis. And the Mount Everest disaster of 1996. And a variety of famous crimes. But I’m not macabre, honestly.)

As it happens, I started writing this post last week, a few days before I (ironically) came down with the nastiest case of stomach flu I’ve ever had, from which I’m still recovering. I am assuming that I did not give myself bad flu juju with all the researching.

Anyway, I recently read a novel that incorporated the events of the real-life 1918 influenza pandemic. (The novel wasn’t that great, so I’ll spare you the title.) In a note about the book, the author wrote that, for some reason, many people know very little about the 1918 flu. Either it isn’t taught in school, or it’s glossed over. I certainly don’t remember learning about it.

Which is strange, because that flu has been called “the worst medical holocaust in history.” Its only possible rival is the European Black Death of the mid-14th-century. I’ll get to the statistics in a moment. Continue reading