Weightlessness and emptiness

“I wonder why the filament bends, because there is also a vacuum?” – asked the girl, looking thoughtfully at the light bulb. A phrase uttered many years ago in the company of physics and technology specialists, among whom I was, detonated our specific sense of humor, superimposed on youthful snobbery and complete politically incorrectness, causing prolonged loud laughter. Me and my college friends were very amused by such mise-en-scènes and stories, but if you look at it, although it looked like a typical question for a blonde, in reality it did not say anything bad about the girl, except that, most likely, physics was indifferent to her and even alien , after all, linking vacuum and weightlessness is a common delusion.

It is quite common that things that seem basic, well-known and elementary to those who are in the subject are in fact incomprehensible or even unfamiliar to most or many, and sometimes this can be a little shocking. I will tell a few stories from my life when I experienced a kind of insight associated with this dissonance and a little about the practical conclusions that I made.


Let’s deal with gravity and vacuum first. Is this a typical misconception? You can check all this for yourself. Ask your friends a simple question:

“Why are the astronauts at the orbital station in zero gravity?”

I have asked this question to many people. The result is as follows:

First place: “There is no gravity” (or its variants)
Second place: “Because there is a vacuum” (ta-taaam)

There were almost no correct answers from people not connected in any way with the exact sciences.

The sample, of course, is insignificant – maybe 20 – 30 people, so you can check and share the data.

However, there is nothing surprising here. Gravity, vacuum – abstractions that an ordinary person rarely deals with. In principle, this is rather expected, but the following example made me reconsider my view of others a little.


Once, in his student years, a friend of mine, while tutoring, made a small discovery. Explaining negative numbers to his student, he realized that his father, an engineer (and even a chief engineer), also did not understand how it all works and could not perform elementary operations with these mythical objects. We decided to conduct a small experiment and tested our acquaintances who were not physicists. The result was puzzling rather than amusing. We asked simple questions like

  • 8 * 7 =? (yes yes, multiplication table)

  • -3 -2 =?

  • -2 + 1 =?

  • 1/3 + 1/2 =?

  • 1/3 * 1/2 =?

    and it turned out that a significant percentage of those surveyed were unable to pass this test.

Again, the sample is small. People usually do not like to be experimented with, looking for flaws in them, but if your friends have a sense of humor and are ready to laugh at themselves, then you can ask them around.

If your charges have passed this simple test, then you can start “atrocities”. Ask them to subtract 10 percent from 100, and then add the same 10 percent from the remaining, or, say, ask them to take the decimal logarithm of 100. If in this case the test is passed, then you are either a person who loves mathematics or professionally works with numbers, or a responsible parent who has just completed a math course with their child.

But according to my observations, people without higher technical education fail the test with enviable regularity, and even graduates of technical universities often could not pass it.

And again, I agree that this does not mean anything. Well, people don’t need all these fractions, negative numbers, logarithms. In principle, why not, I accept, although this was unexpected for me, and I had to adjust my perception of the world taking into account the new data.

Once on one of our trips, my wife and I stopped at a hotel that was located on a hill. On our first walk, when we went down to the city, I noticed that it would be difficult to return to the hill, to which my wife objected that we would look for another road. I did not miss the opportunity to laugh and even a little (marriage still contributes to the development of a sense of delicacy) to mock, but in reality she is right, because you can find an easier way back, and this does not violate the law of conservation of energy at all.

So abstractions are abstractions, and life is life, but not always everything is so harmless.

What is “thinking”?

One friend, being a student at Moscow State University, complained that she did not understand how to solve problems. Being disciplined, very hard-working, she could not master this skill in any way. Her perseverance is evidenced by the fact that she entered the physics department from the 6th time and was able to graduate from the university with good grades, as well as the fact that she was a master of sports in swimming. Of course, she could solve a typical problem, but did not understand how to solve something new. Well, I didn’t understand either, no one understood, but still, our neurons had this property of finding new solutions or creatively applying old ones – it doesn’t exist. And it really was so, she could not, although she tried.

She became a scientist. Probably, now she solves routine “complex” problems quite well and is a valuable member of the team, but she does not know how to solve “difficult” problems (I use the terminology introduced in this article). I think there are many such people. Is this a problem? Not if they are in the right positions, where they are not required to solve such problems, but is this always the case?

I recall the story of how we laughed at the “stupid Americans” (it was in trend at the time), when one of my classmates returned from a business trip and said that one American “scientist” had various reminders around his desk and one of them was like this: “odd numbers: 1,3,5,7,9,11,13,15,17,19, … (and so on up to 99); even numbers: 2,4,6,8,10, 12,14,16, … (and so on up to 100) “.

Rip into the root

But there are also opposite examples. A good friend of mine was distinguished by the fact that his thought could easily and quickly split a complex problem, getting to the point literally on the fly. Under stress, his abilities only increased, which I have always envied. But often he could not explain or reproduce his logical path, and was there a path?

Once he met his childhood friend whom he taught to play chess 30 years ago. In those days, playing with half of the pieces, he easily outplayed his student. And so it so happened that his friend became a grandmaster. As a joke, the grandmaster suggested playing 10 games. We agreed that if at least one game is drawn, then he will be counted as a defeat. The first game was lost! In the first game, the grandmaster lost to a man who had no rank, had not read a single chess book and had not attended any sections!

The feeling that such people live by meanings. He was always and everywhere accompanied and accompanies by chaos. The path of science quickly began to weigh on my friend, and he became … an artist, and quite famous.

How I became a vocational school

Do you need the ability to solve “difficult” problems in IT, namely networks?

Maybe not for everyone, but such people are definitely needed in a team.

I think very few people understand what losses companies incur due to the fact that this skill in IT is greatly underestimated, especially in Europe, where I have been working for quite some time. Of course, smart, good kids here go to lawyers, finance, managers, business … Sometimes it seems that an IT specialist is treated here like a person who just couldn’t go to a good institute, and he had to go wherever he did. We (a few guys who moved from Russia) are joking here that they treat us like vocational school students. And this is very different from what was and is in Russia, where the strong and even the best often leave for IT.

I am constantly confronted with the results of such negative selection here. This manifests itself, for example, in the ill-conceived design of the network, in the raw pre-sale preparation, in the inability to troubleshoot. I can cite many stories on this topic.

When interviewing for a network engineer position, we certainly don’t ask math problems. But sometimes you want to check how well a person can think logically.

And here’s what I learned – there is no point in asking problems from well-known and published lists that only geniuses and those who already know the answers can immediately solve. What can you check with this? Has the applicant read the answer to this problem earlier or not? For me, the ability to think is like an ear for music, it either exists or not. In order to determine this, it is not necessary to make complex pieces of music repeat, it is enough to play a note and ask it to sing. If there is a rumor, then it is already possible to develop further.

You need to ask something simple (but not trivial), maybe even from childhood, for example:

“If you open the tap completely, the bathtub will fill up in an hour, if after that you turn off the water and remove the plug, then the water will drain completely in 2 hours. How long will it take to fill the bathtub without a plug, with the tap fully open?”

Do you think this (or a similar) problem is often solved without prompts in a reasonable amount of time?

IT definitely needs the ability to think and solve complex problems. Not all must be strong, but the strong must be in the team, the team lead must be strong, the decision must be made by strong people who know how to think, otherwise, everything will be bad. At the same time, sparks of political wars will be in the air, new stars will light up over the swamp, imagining themselves to be super-specialists, all this leapfrog will close on itself, and good engineers, even if they accidentally fly in, will be belched out, or will be used as workhorses with with the stigma “in principle, understands, but …”

In my experience, such systems rarely evolve. If the places are warm, then they hold on to them, and this swamp can gurgle endlessly.

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