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Interactive video lesson plan for: Physics vs. Human Perception: Which Represents Reality? | Janna Levin

Activity overview:

What does a theoretical physicist do all day? Janna Levin shares some insight on perception vs. reality, and provides a glimpse of how she spends her time (hint: doing math).Levin's latest book is "Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space" (


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Transcript - Every human being models the world to understand it and that's cognitively how we're successful. So I don't look at a chair and see a huge number of molecules or some very complex structure, I see a chair. This is something that's very hard to teach a computer to do to understand conceptual things forward. And we conceptualize right away. We theorize right away. I have a theory of what that object is and my theory is that it's a chair. And that's what helps human beings be so adaptable in the world and so fast at moving through the world is precisely this ability to theorize and model. But we also know that by doing so we are projecting a theory of the world on the world and we trick ourselves, we deceive ourselves sometimes. The trick is to use the power that's given to us by being able to conceptualize and model and have metaphor, but always to remember that that's what we're doing and to always - when you come to a point there is in some sense no such thing as knowing something's true. It's true in the context of the model of the world that you have. And maybe there's a different model of the world where that truth is a little bit different. I mean I am in no position to talk about interpersonal relationships, but I think that this is a problem between people that we have a theory of the world and things mean the certain things in that context and we forget that somebody else has a different theory of the world and the exact same experience means something very different.

As a theoretical physicist I rely very much on calculating to understand a result. So let's say I want to know what happens when a big black hole swallows a little tiny black hole. My starting point will be to think what's my first mathematical sentence that I know if I crack it open will answer this question? Even with that step can be very hard. And then once I do that I'll be moving very in a very structured way through the steps to unlock that, but sometimes It's like a Rubik's Cube, which I'm actually not good at, some people can just [SOUND] and solve it and some people just keep making a bigger mess. And so as a physicist you want your skill to improve to the point where you could just sort of unlock this thing. I find it very interesting when I work with much younger students I like to kind of sit back in the room when you we're calculating now and ask them to try to find the solution in a way that we do know how to go one step after another, but I'll be trying, at the same time, to try to find that cute way of unpacking it that's highly non obvious. And sometimes I'm sitting there for two days while they're generating 12 pages of very tough beautifully done calculations where I'm trying to find a way to try to do it in a half a page. Read Full Transcript Here:

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