Heavy Boots

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Heavy Boots

From: S. Ansell
Date: Sat, 06 Apr 91 13:08:00 -0800

Hi, My name is Seth, I'm a grad student in color science at RIT in Rochester N.Y., an area in which the national weather bureau states that we receive an average of 62 sunny days per year. One of the many advantages of this, is that, unlike people who live in California, we don't have to worry about getting skin cancer. Anyhow, I was cleaning out my mail files and found this... I thought someone out there might appreciate it.

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 [teaching assistant] 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:

About 47 percent got this question correct. Of the ones who got it wrong, we asked the obvious follow-up question:

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."

Note from your webmaster: I was on a trip to Eivissa and Gran Canaria when I received this email (in late October 1995). Sitting at an outdoor table in my favorite restaurant, I read this on my PowerBook's screen and laughed out loud. The restaurant owners, friends of mine, and some acquaintances at the next table thought it strange that someone should laugh at a computer and asked me what was so funny.

I translated this story into both German and Spanish, and then proceeded to ask the people around me the questions. All were 35 years of age, plus or minus ten years. Every one (that's right, 100 per cent) answered Heavy Boots or "don't know". I explained the physics and we all had a good laugh over  cafe con leche.

Have you found errors nontrivial or marginal, factual, analytical and illogical, arithmetical, temporal, or even typographical? Please let me know; drop me email. Thanks!

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