You and Your Particles

Democritus (ca. 460 BCE to ca. 370 BCE) was among the earliest Greek philosophers to propose this scenario: if you divide something into smaller and smaller parts, and keep dividing them, eventually you would end up with their “base” material, an inseparable unit of matter. What, exactly, is this base material? Democritus gave this hypothetical substance a name: atomos (or, in English, atoms). Literally translated, it means uncut or indivisible.

In 1897, British physicist J.J. Thomson made a remarkable discovery. When he shot cathode rays through an electric field he noted that they were deflected, leading him to posit that the rays themselves also had a negatively charged sub particle. It turned out the atom was divisible after all: it had electrons.

In 1909, Ernest Rutherford, another British physicist, oversaw an experiment at the University of Manchester. By firing alpha particles at a thin sheet of gold foil, he and his team discovered that some particles, but not all, would scatter in unpredictable directions. This is regarded as the discovery of the nucleus. Atoms not only had negative electrons, they also had a dense, positively-charged core.

These are only but a few of the discoveries along the way that have led us to a remarkable view of the world: matter, seemingly constant, is in constant change. We ourselves are compositions in continual transformation. Marveling at this reality, philosopher, historian, and poet George Santayana wrote,

…all we observe about us, and ourselves also, may be so many passing forms of a permanent substance. This substance, while remaining the same in quantity and in inward quality, is constantly redistributed; in its redistribution it forms those aggregates which we call things, and which we find constantly disappearing and reappearing. All things are dust, and to dust they return; a dust, however, eternally fertile, and destined to fall perpetually into new, and doubtless beautiful, forms. This notion of substance lends a much greater unity to the outspread world; it persuades us that all things pass into one another, and have a common ground from which they spring successively, and to which they return. (Santayana, 1910)

It is mind numbing to wrap our heads around, but you and I and all the objects we see, touch, and feel today were once other things. Millions of ‘other things.’ Contemplating life at the atomic level has kept many philosophers and poets up late into the night. It provides a tireless supply of metaphors to celebrate our interconnectedness and synergistic connection to one another, and every thing. So even if you haven’t looked at a periodic table since you were in school, and even though you will likely not spend any other time contemplating molecular structures today, start your day here, at the atomic level of reflection. Everything around you is permanence in an impermanent state — including you.

What are you made of? Exactly the same stuff as everyone else.


Divisive Punditry

Divisive punditry is a very effective way to get your name out there (not to mention your ideas).

The higher the premium is for our attention, the more incentive there is for employing polarizing tactics as a means of gaining our notice.

This leads an interesting, hypothetical equation in the broader context of knowledge inflation: the more competition there is for public attention, the greater the payoff becomes for being more outlandish, brash, and belligerent than everyone else. If this true, the more knowledge we generate as a society, the more (relatively) ignorant we may need to sound in order to get one another’s attention.

Is it a paradox worth considering? What do you think?


Optimism Bias: Why Other People are Idiots

You are in your car and you see someone else using their phone while driving. What an idiot, you think to yourself. They should know better. Of course, you have probably talked on the phone while driving before, too. So, if you are the average person, you would then quickly explain that the situation was somehow different when you did it. Likely, you would use one of the following excuses: it was an actual emergency when you used your phone, or the crisis warranted the risk; or, probably, you are a remarkable multitasker, better than the average driver.

This is optimism bias, and most of us have it. We tend to assume that disasters happen to other people. Smokers believe they are less likely to get lung cancer than other smokers. People feel they are less likely than the rest of the population to be the victim of crime. Cell phone users believe other people are more likely to get in an accident while talking and driving.

Curious to determine the causes of optimism bias, researchers identified three desired “end states” that tend to generate this bias. These are “under the hood” motivations, not in people’s conscious explanations.

“People may…estimate that their risk is less than the risk of others because doing so allows them to be better than average.”
“A motivation to perceive oneself as better than others may lead people to reflexively present their personal risk as less than the risk of other people.”
“People display a comparative control illusion, perceiving that they have more control over events than does the average person.” (Shepperd, 2002)

Comparing ourselves to other people runs deep in our mental wiring. In fact, it’s virtually impossible to avoid it at the subconscious level. We can, however, use the flaring indignation of moral judgment to catch ourselves. For example, as a pedestrian, I am irked when cyclists ride on the sidewalk. Why can’t they just follow the rules of the road and get out of my way? Have I ever ridden a bicycle on a sidewalk? Of course I have. What does my resentment and exasperation at the cyclist really represent? Probably my own subconscious need to feel superior.

Today, or tomorrow, the next time someone pisses you off, embrace the moment as a natural invitation to check your bias meter. Try counting the number of times that you get upset with someone else for doing exactly the same thing you have done before. Try it. It’s very humbling.