Flightless Waterfowl 9/29/22

Thoughts with Richard Bleil

During the eighties, my favorite cartoon was being run in newspapers.  It featured a flightless waterfowl (a penguin) who would periodically lament that he has wings with which he could not fly.  The wings were, in his opinion, “useless”.

On the flip side of the coin, if anybody has ever seen penguins underwater, they’re astounding acrobats.  They’re quick, agile, graceful and simply astonishing.  To say that their wings are useless, and that they cannot fly, is simply incorrect.  While they might not be able to fly in the air, underwater, they certainly do fly, and their wings are the precise reason.

Recently, I had a realization that no wings work on every occasion.  Birds can fly in the air, and some of them dive and even swim (a little bit) underwater, but they can’t use their wings.  Penguins can use their wings underwater but not in the air.  So who’s to say that a penguins wings don’t work but birds’ do? 

A quote often attributed to Albert Einstein (and probably incorrectly) goes, “Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”  I’ve heard several renditions of this quote, and I don’t recall the term “stupid” in any of them, but it’s the version that popped up on my search today.  Whoever wrote it, though, is absolutely correct.  We all have gifts and talents, but they may not align with those of most people.  When I was married, my in-laws thought that I was basically an idiot.  They lived on a farm, and when they were working on it they would never ask me to help, and would refuse my help when I did offer.  My knowledge is much more abstract (if you consider chemistry, math and physics to be abstract) and well outside of the norm of people’s knowledge, but am I stupid?  I can fly in scientific circles, but drown in sports.  So do my wings simply not work? 

It seems to be human nature, yes, even for me, to look at our failures, and use our weaknesses to judge our own self-worth.  I know the theory of how a car works, but I wouldn’t try to change out a timing belt.  It’s not my field of expertise, but if the car breaks down by the side of the road, I do know enough to at least have a chance to get it back on the road (although I’m not certain, which is why I have a roadside assistance service). 

And it goes both ways.  I was discussing entropy with a friend today, something that most people would say is “disorder”.  This definition of entropy is actually a poor one for a couple of reasons, including the fact that disorder cannot be expressed mathematically.  But more than that, the concept of “disorder” is subjective.  Anybody with children (once they’re old enough) have had that experience where, as a parent, they think the child’s room is a mess (highly disordered), but the child usually knows precisely where everything in the room is and has no trouble finding something they want.  So is the room actually disordered?

It would be easy, as a professor, to laugh at people who use this simple definition of entropy and claim that they don’t know “anything”.  But in so doing, I would be turning off that “light switch”.  Why would anybody actually make an effort to learn, or to try their hand at the sciences, once they’ve been shot down because they cannot fly?  As it turns out, entropy is better related to knowledge of a system, where the less we know, the higher the entropy.  It’s like taking a deck of cards fresh out of the pack where we know the exact order and shuffling them.  When they’re properly shuffled, entropy is at its maximum because we don’t know the order at all.  The astute reader, at this point, might ask how we can put a mathematical expression to knowledge, but thanks to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, it’s actually possible to mathematically express entropy (as S = k ln w, where w is the total number of possible configurations, so the larger w the higher the entropy and the lower our knowledge of the system).  This is a deceptively simple looking equation, but as it turns out, there are more ramifications to this equation than even I understand. 

The point to this example, though, is to tell you that as we discussed entropy, and this definition based on available knowledge, she came up with a wholly unique example of entropy on her own.  Man, was she flying.  And you can fly, too, but you’re clipping your own wings if you judge yourself (as I do myself) on your weaknesses.  Challenge yourself with your weaknesses by trying to improve them in accordance with your interests, but don’t be discouraged as you are learning, and remember to celebrate your strengths.  Regardless of your medium, be proud of the great heights to which you fly.

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