You don’t need to be a physicist to understand gravity.

Sometimes it’s just about language, and worse, sometimes it‘s about permission.

Physicists understand gravity, just like you. Sure, they use a funny language called math to communicate it to people like engineers, so they can use it make space crafts to escape earth’s gravitational field on take off, but the basic understanding that heavy things fall to the ground is the same understanding you used to figure out how to walk, which is the same understanding that people who can’t walk lament.

Let me explain. My family went camping the other day, and my 10 year old daughter climbed into a car tire that was hanging from a thick branch. There was a rope tied to the tree laying on the ground, and she used it to pull herself towards the tree. As she swung to and fro, she started giggling, and then screamed when she hit the tree. 

She looked at me and laughed, let go of the rope, and let the swing slow down. Then she picked up the rope and pulled it again, harder and harder until she hit the tree again, and giggled again uncontrollably and screamed “I can’t do it!”

This time, she didn’t let go of the rope, but tugged it slowly and rhythmically, until the swing started to move in a circle.

Like a child learning to walk, she started to manipulate gravity to enable some idea she had in her mind.

In this case, she wanted to the tire to move in a circular pattern.

Any mathematician would be able to calculate the necessary force and timing of application of force to enable the tire to rotate in a circle, but my daughter doesn’t understand the tool that Newton developed to calculate this mathematically, Calculus, but she managed to make it happen despite this gap in her knowledge.

This means that my daughter understands gravity, like a physicist, and how to manipulate it, like a physicist. The only difference between her and physicist, is that the physicist knows a language called math, and she doesn’t.

Math is just a language. A computer can be trained to use math, and can do the calculations to manipulate gravity like she did.

This may sound trivial, but it’s not. It’s extremely important, because it means that we understand a lot more than we give ourselves credit for.

The reason we don’t give ourselves credit is because our civilization makes a distinction between who is qualified to talk about some things, and who is not qualified to talk about these things.

My wife is a teacher in an elementary school and asked me to help teach science to the 4th grade last year for a week. There was a range of kids in there, and some were talkative and quick to pick things up, and some were mute and slow. 

At the end of the week, I demonstrated lift by blowing on the top of a piece of paper, which makes the paper rise against the force of gravity because the air is moving faster across the top of the paper than on the bottom of the paper. Then I took the piece of paper and turned it into a paper airplane – there’s a cool design that allows you to fold the rear foils in different patterns that allow the plane to do stunts like loop the loop. Very fun.

After I made the plane quickly to get to the loop the loop – the money shot – I went to each group of kids and repeated the folding sequence quickly, and then again slowly.

At one of the tables there was a kid who had said exactly zero words, and given me zero feedback during the week, and so I hadn’t even really noticed him. I made the plane quickly, too quickly for anyone to understand, and then the second one slowly. The mute kid was holding a completed plane before I started the second plane. 

I froze. “Where did he get that from?” I asked the table. He didn’t speak any English so he didn’t know what I was asking. A vocal kid said “Oh he’s really smart, he followed the fast version and copied you, he just doesn’t speak English.”

I was like, wtf, in my head.

We understand things we don’t realize that we are qualified to speak about, and there’s no easy way to tell what others understand.

Sometimes, rocket science isn’t rocket science, and even when it is, sometimes, paying attention to what you know, or what someone else knows, is more important.

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