That Counterintuitive Moment

I explored the relation between data and intuition in my previous blog. Here I’ve pondered the concept of coutnerintuition and the importance of perseverance in a pursuit. I think a discovery in science is that unique moment when one’s intuition intersects with a phenomenon, which subsequently gets rationalized either mathematically or through an experiment. Some of those discoveries happen to get counterintuitive too i.e. they tend to defy (sometimes completely reversing) a previously held intuition, only to evolve into a new intuition providing us with that extra bit of knowledge. In the subsequent paragraphs, I recall a few instances that I think were/are counterintuitive.

Most of us are aware of the flat world theory that prevailed prior to 5th century BC. When proposed, the concept of a spherical world was difficult to grasp for many. Even the scholars during that time were unable to accept it until they began see empirical evidence in its favor. I think moving to the spherical world would have been a counterintuitive moment for those who had embraced the flat world theory completely.

The second one is Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. This principle asserts the fundamental limit in precision with which certain pairs of physical properties (position and momentum) of a particle can be measured. This can be demonstrated through an experiment wherein; a laser beam is made to pass through a slit (of a variable length) and projected on a screen. The image shrinks as we narrow the slit, which is intuitive, but beyond a specific point (when the slit is narrowed to less than a 100th of a cm), the behavior reverses – the image actually begins to widen as we narrow the slit further. I think for someone who has been exposed to classical physics alone, this behavior could sound counterintuitive.

My last example is related to the game of cricket. For a long time the fast bowlers of the game were used to the intuition of the conventional swing. The cricket ball when bowled fast swings in the direction of the side that is relatively rougher. For decades fast bowlers exploited this by polishing only one side of the ball in the course of the game to maximize the possibility of a swing, creating trouble to the batsman. The intuition was completely justified and aerodynamically rationalized, until the concept of reverse swing was observed a few decades back. Reverse swing is observed when the cricket ball is bowled even faster (say 80 mph). At this critical speed, the intuition is defied and the ball also swings in the direction of the polished side. Understandably this counterintuitive behavior took some time to settle in the cricketing world.

In all above cases I sense someone’s (the first observer of each of the above phenomenon) relentless pursuit to evolve an intuition. I happened to stumble upon this interesting perspective by Richard Feynman on what Physics is all about. Feynman compares Physics to a grand game of chess played by God and humans trying to interpret the rules of it by just watching a few moves here and there. All of a sudden, pursuing to intuit appears more important than the act of intuiting itself.