Unraveling Assumptions: a Story on Framing
The truth can be counterintuitive if your framing is misaligned.
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Here is a thought experiment:
Imagine you have two identical rockets that can accelerate to relativistic velocities (near the speed of light). Both have an identical orientation and are started precisely at the same moment, so their trajectories are identical, and the distance between these two rockets from the original reference point never changes. Now imagine a thin thread pulled taught is also connecting these rockets before launch.
Will the thread ever break?
I found this thought experiment in Tim Maudlin’s Philosophy of Physics: Space and Time. John Stewart Bell initially posed it to his colleagues at CERN. The story around the problem is even more fascinating, as told by Bell:
This old problem came up for discussion once in the CERN canteen. A distinguished experimental physicist refused to accept that the thread would break, and regarded my assertion, that indeed it would, as a personal misrepresentation of special relativity. We decided to appeal to the CERN Theory Division for arbitration, and made a (not very systematic) canvas of opinion in it. There emerged a clear consensus that the thread would not break!2
Of course, Bell was correct. Lorentz Boots have Physical Implications. The primary issue was not that anyone thought that Lorentz transformations were inaccurate but on a fundamental misunderstanding of relativistic motion's abstract vs. physical implications.
Clarity of thought and proper framing can lead to profound insights that aren’t clear even to those who are experts in your field. “Obvious truths” or “obvious falsehoods” can stem from a failure to understand core principles. This can manifest as pervasive shortcuts in thinking adopted by entire groups of folks. Of course, that is until someone questions those assumptions compellingly.
The truth can be counterintuitive if your framing is misaligned. With clever framing, a deeper understanding of reality can transform a contrarian observation into the next “obvious truth,” “foundational principle,” or “best practice.”
Notable Links of the Week
Final reminder before voting closes on Sunday. I’m pitching a panel for SXSW 2024. We have some amazing panelists (Henry Segerman, Looking Glass Universe, and Workshop Nation). Public voting started this week and ends on August 20. I’d love your vote. https://panelpicker.sxsw.com/vote/135520
I’ve known that Kajagoogoo was an odd band with a unique sound. Even if you’ve never heard of the band, this video paints a beautiful picture of the contributions of their bass player.
Sabine's videos never disappoint. Her breakdown of Moore’s law and its potential limits is worth checking out.
I’d never imagined that Dark Matter Stars could even be a thing. This is an excellent introduction to how such a thing could exist and what it might mean for galaxy formation in the early universe.
I enjoy Matt Rickard’s daily substack, but this is a repost of David Akin’s insights on good Spacecraft design. It reminds me a lot of the Go Proverbs and is dense with really quotable truths worth chewing on for a bit.
I love a contrarian hot-take, especially regarding nuclear fusion research. While I’m not a big fan of the doomsday closing paragraph, the primary points made in this blog post are well-argued and drive the point that NIF research has never really been about viable fusion energy production; it’s about weapons research.
Maudlin, Tim. Philosophy of Physics: 5 (Princeton Foundations of Contemporary Philosophy) (p. 113). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.