"You've always got a reason for everything," a friend said, as we walked along the shore a few days ago. He had commented, moments before, on the wind blowing toward us from the adjacent bay --- and that had set me off on a mini-lecture concerning sea breezes and why they develop. In the daytime, land heats up more quickly than a nearby body of water; land has less heat capacity, since water can convectively absorb far more solar energy without changing its temperature much. So the beach gets hotter quicker --- and hot air rises. A natural air current begins to flow shorewards as the day progresses. The situation is reversed after sunset, when the land cools more rapidly.

Simple stuff, which as a youth I must have read in an elementary school science book. But what delighted and amused my comrade was that, at the drop of a hat, I was ready not just to state the phenomenon but to explain it. I started to apologize for being pedantic, but he said no apology was needed. He enjoyed listening to me, he claimed, and was just making an observation about my personality ... which I guess might be charitably described as hyperanalytic.

I thanked my friend --- and then, without seeing what I was up to, I began to analyze out loud why I might be this way. (I didn't realize that I was doing it at the time; I only noticed my behavior in retrospect, as I began writing this note. Oops!) I blathered on about the great value of mental models, and then gave some specific examples of how having such models, however incomplete, can be of tremendous help.

For example, I said, my knowledge of automotive technology is minimal. But I do believe that (most) cars have an electrical system with various circuits and devices to make an engine turn over so it can start and then run, a fuel system to get gasoline vaporized and into the cylinders where it can burn, a transmission to move energy to the wheels, etc., etc. Several times I've been able to help people whose vehicles wouldn't start, just by leading them through a logical analysis of what the observables indicated. ("You probably aren't out of gas, and your battery isn't dead, but I don't hear any sound when you turn the key. Are you in Park? Maybe the inhibitor switch is out of whack. Try shifting to Neutral and starting from there ...")

Then I went on to talk about other things for which I have more, or less, evidence. I've never been to Cuba, I said, but there are enough reliable people who claim that it exists for me to accept it as a fact. Cuba also fits in with a lot of other things that, in turn, mesh to make a coherent story. And, to a far greater degree, modern science is a vast network of such stories. I love it --- obviously --- and I can't help but share some of that enthusiasm if anyone will listen.

There's a comic movie, The Wrong Box, which I feel most fondly about because of one particular character in it: an ancient gentleman (played by Ralph Richardson) who, given an infinitesimal excuse, reliably lurches into lecture mode on any subject one cares to name ... and proceeds to talk about it in excruciating detail and at interminable length. At one point he accepts a ride to London on a buggy with a farmer. We see him begin to declaim on Biblical translations. The camera cuts away, and when it returns to him he's climbing down from the vehicle. "Thank you!" he says, "Thirteen hours passed as if they were so many minutes..." The farmer rolls his eyes and quickly makes his escape.

Yep, that pompous old dude is me ...

(dialogue quoted above is from memory, and should not be taken as literal; see also KnowHowAndFearNot (19 Nov 1999), FifthDisciplinarians (10 Sep 2000), RealGenius (23 Jan 2003), ...)

TopicPersonalHistory - TopicScience - TopicThinking - 2003-07-18

(correlates: ElusivePimpernel, TimeToRead, Mr. Know-It-All, ...)