Monthly Archives: October 2015

Break

I’ve grown old
The things that used to bother me
Still does
But does not do enough
To throw me off balance

I am a rock
I am an island
As the famous songwriter said

It takes a lot of hammering
To shape molten metal
And forge it into
An immovable incorruptible mass.

It takes a lot of time.
It takes a lot of patience.

Then
Sooner or later
There comes a time
When the hammer breaks
To everyone’s surprise.

I am a rock
I am an island
My ocean will sink your ship
My strength will crush your soul

Beware of what you touch
What you want to corrupt
The fire you want to play with
The sword that you wield

Sooner or later
There will come a time
When you’ll be outmatched

The time will come
When you least expect it.

Write me a love letter that day.
Not before.

left-right-difference-parity-violation-symmetry

The difference between left and right

The concept of right and left is innate

It is impossible to teach anyone the concept of right and left. Yet all of us manage to learn it as kids.

Why do I say it is impossible to teach the concept of right and left? Well, how would you teach it? You’d perhaps take a few 2D pictures, draw a line through the middle and tell the kid “this side is left” and “that side is right” while pointing to the relevant sides of the pictures. After a few such demonstrations, the kid is able to identify “left” and “right” for pictures that he has not seen before. At the end of the experiment, you conclude that the child has learnt the difference between left and right because of the demonstrations.

I think this conclusion is wrong.. As a result of this demonstration, he merely learnt the words for a concept he already knew. If this was not the case, the kid would have never figured out why seemingly different parts of different pictures are being described by the same word “left”. You have to know the similarity already in some form in order to identify it.

This logic can be used for almost any example that you can use to teach a kid ‘right’ and ‘left’. All such examples merely provide the kid with the required words.

If you can come up with an example where this logic fails , then please post the example in the comment section below.

How distinguishable is left and right from birth?

If we accept the argument in the last Section,  then ‘left’ and ‘right’ are concepts that we are born with.  But the question remains: how well can we distinguish these two concepts when we are toddlers? There are two possibilities.

  1. We can distinguish them perfectly from birth. Left and right are like two cups that look completely different from the get go. One is round and another one is cylindrical, for example.
  2. We can distinguish them from birth, but the difference is very subtle. Left  and right are then, in analogy,  two cups that are made from the same cast, both being round perhaps. Initially they are indistinguishable except for the fact that they occupy different spatial regions. Later we add different decorations to the outer surface of the cup and then they become more distinguishable. Decorations here refer to our experiences in the real world which is inherently left right asymmetric (your right hand is perhaps stronger than your left or vice versa). This asymmetry helps us in distinguishing strongly two concepts which were almost indistinguishable to begin with.

Judging from my childhood experience, I think the second possibility is in fact the case. What do you think?

This is experimentally verifiable too. If a kid can learn the difference between “left” and “right” from a set of left-right symmetric picture (in the example mentioned in the last section) quickly, then 1 is true. If not, and if we need asymmetric pictures to help a child learn the difference quickly, then 2 is true. This can be verified by performing the relevant experiments with toddlers.

Left right asymmetry of the human body and the physical world

Assuming that the distinction between left and right is weak at birth, we need asymmetries in ourselves and the world around us to make the distinction stronger.

Fortunately, the world is riddled with such asymmetries.

The human body is left right asymmetric. This is one the major asymmetries that helps us in consistently distinguishing right from left.

  1. The human heart is typically offset towards the left.
  2. The right hand and the left hand usually differ in strength. In my case, my right hand is stronger.
  3. The right lung is bigger that the left lung.
  4. The left side of the brain tends to control many aspects of language and logic, while the right side tends to handle spatial information and visual comprehension.

The physical world is full of such asymmetries too. The houses on the right side of the street don’t look like that on the left side.

This ever present asymmetry in our daily existence and experience color our concepts of right and left and make them more distinguishable.

What would happen if the human body was symmetric?

If the human body was symmetric, perhaps we would not be born with the ability to distinguish left from right. However we cannot predict this with any certainty.

What would happen if the human body was asymmetric but the external world was symmetric?

The houses on a street are accidental asymmetries. They could have been symmetric for all we know. If they were indeed symmetric, could we distinguish between left and right consistently?

The answer seems to be “weakly” from the discussion in the first two sections. However Physics has a completely different answer to give.

The physical world is not “accidentally” symmetric, it is asymmetric by design

Here is where things get interesting. According to a landmark experiment performed in 1956 by a team headed by Madame Wu, nature was shown to differentiate between right and left strongly.

We aren’t talking about man made houses or asymmetries on the earth surface here. We are talking of the laws that govern elementary particles at the highest energy scales (smallest length scales) known to man. Nature was shown to distinguish between left and right at this fundamental level. This is commonly called Parity Violation in high energy Physics. You might have heard about it.

I wanted to dedicate an entire blog post to this revolutionary experiment. The link will appear here shortly. Meanwhile, you can look here for details on the experiment.

Conclusion

Right and left is distinguishable. The difference between left and right is not accidental. It is present in Nature by design.

  • Human kids can perhaps weakly distinguish between left and right as soon as they are born.
  • This distinction is made stronger by linking the concepts with accidental asymmetries in the physical world.
  • Not all asymmetries in the physical world are accidental. Nature distinguishes between left and right at the smallest length scales. In other words, it is possible to distinguish right from left by simply performing  certain Physics experiments on otherwise symmetric systems.
conscious subconscious experience logic hormones

Experience over logic

I loved debating as a kid and believed that logic and argumentation can solve all the problems in the world. Religion, love, morals, science…I considered nothing sacred. My father was one of my sparring partners and I loved pissing him off with my solid GK and watertight arguments.

Sometimes when cornered by my arguments, my father would say exasperated: ” Remember that you are talking to a 50 year old man. I have seen some things you can’t even begin to imagine. Don’t act like a know-it-all. You haven’t seen shit!”.

I laughed him away. “Age and experience, who needs them?”, I’d say, “Logic reigns supreme over everything else”.

I had a lot of confidence in logic, but since, I have repeatedly run into situations where logic fell short of delivering the right solution. Came as quite a shock to me.

In time, I accepted the fact that logic doesn’t reign supreme, and maybe, just maybe, my dad has a point.

There are two kinds of problems : impersonal and personal. While logic can handle the first kind fine, it needs the help of age and experience to solve the second.

Let me give an example: When a friend comes to me with a moral dilemma, I can use consequential logic. I’d be right most of the time too. But when I am struggling with a moral dilemma myself, suddenly all logic flies out of the window. My subconscious and my hormones won’t let me think straight. This is not just true for moral dilemmas, but for any problem where we have a vested interest in the outcome.

We typically use two independent components to solve such problems. One component is the rational self which uses logic. The second component is our hormones and our subconscious. Science has, so far, been very unsuccessful at figuring out how this second component works. This is where ‘age and experience’ comes in.

When we start out as an adult, our second component is on autopilot. The rational part is under control and helpful (assuming you are smart) but the other component is acting on its own. We don’t know how it works and it does not feel obliged to tell us. Very often, it leads to unwanted if not disastrous outcomes. Our rational part observes quietly. It observes for a few times and starts detecting patterns. Once it starts detecting patterns (these patterns are what you call experience) the rational part can now start to control the second component to a degree. The more it observes, the more it learns, the clearer the patterns and the stronger the control.

This is the real power of experience.

Experience knows things about you that science or logic doesn’t. You can use this knowledge to gain control over situations. Next time the shit gets real, consider analyzing your experiences in similar situations in the past to find out what this says about yourself. When you have a firm grasp of your ‘crazy’ side and your ‘logical’ side, that is when you will emerge victorious from personal problems.