Like most men, I trust my intuition.

Whether it’s weaving my way out of the woods at dusk or making financial decisions, I rely on my mental map. Besides, the old stereotype about men not wanting to ask for directions does not apply when you can discreetly ask Google for directions.

To escape the ice storms that now pass for winter in Wisconsin, we spent a week in Reno in February. Unable to take a hike in the topographically curved hills of southwest Wisconsin, we took our evening walk in the Euclidean geometry of Reno streets. The streets were straight and corners formed right angles.

I often use Google Maps to navigate large cities, not wanting to use my brain.

My wife told me to turn it off – the GPS that is, not my brain. OK, I thought.

Just keep making right-hand turns at corners and we’ll find our way back.

About a mile down our path, the street made an unexpected long gradual turn to the right. My intuition told me our rental unit was still to the right. I started to make a right turn. “No,” my wife said. “The house is to the left.” I protested, but she was right – about the left that is.

My mental map, along with my man-pride, had abandoned me about six blocks ago.

The book, “The Grand Design” by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, further questions our mental map. Hawking, the now-deceased physicist who many regard as the second coming of Albert Einstein, had a better grasp of the universal map than most of us in the neighborhood.

Of the view from inside our heads, Hawking says, “Our perception – and hence the observations upon which our theories are based – is not direct, but rather is shaped by a kind of lens, the interpretive structures of our human brains.”

Modern science is not intuitive. If you rely on intuition to navigate the strange world of quantum physics, where the very existence of particles is expressed as a probability rather than a certainty, you are already lost.

While we rely on intuition to make decisions and our beliefs to form opinions, science has taught us we cannot rely on either, at least not in the “objective” physical world.

Many balk at the socialization of scientific concepts, such as relativism. As a culture, there are indeed absolutes in social norms and long-held beliefs.

Outside the laboratory, in the “real world,” we don’t need scientists to tell us what direction is up.

Yet at very least, science tells us that things are not always as they seem.

Science has taught us a new way to look at the world. Whether through a telescope or down a microscope, or through a camera lens looking back at the earth from the moon, science gives us a new perspective.

One of the most counter-intuitive discoveries of 20th century science is the notion that space itself bends around large objects, such as the sun.

Einstein proposed this in his General Theory of Relativity published in 1915. Ask any three-dimensional creature on a street corner to imagine how four-dimensional space-time can bend and his eyes will glaze over. Yet the theory has been proven over and over through experimentation.

As imaginative as Albert Einstein was, though, he could not accept the concept of quantum physics properties expressed as probabilities. Einstein famously said, “God does not play dice with the universe.” In response, Hawking says, “If one were religious, one could say that God really does play dice.”

Back in Reno, I reluctantly accepted the idea that things were not as they seem and found my way home.

My friend and I then found our way to the casino, where dice are thrown with regularity. We played blackjack, where the chance of an ace and a face card appearing simultaneously is most assuredly expressed as a probability and not a certainty. Cards and life can be humbling.

Our intuition, our mental map of the world, abandons us on a daily basis. We just don’t realize it, unless we are lost in Reno or near a black hole in space-time.

Things are not as they seem. That realization, humbling as it feels, is the first step to learning.

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Eric Frydenlund is a columnist who lives in Prairie du Chien and writes about nature, politics and social issues from a systems perspective.


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