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Idea Seeds #12 – In ‘Problem Solving’ “A prudent question is one-half of wisdom” – (Francis Bacon)

Updated on January 9, 2017

Why the Bicycle Moves Backward

The ubiquitous bicycle is a wonderfully efficient machine full of things that can be used to demonstrate some of the basic must-know-stuff we need to get to grips with if we wish to further our understanding of the world we live in. In ‘Idea Seeds #11’ you were asked which direction a bicycle would move if, while standing behind it, you pulled on a string attached to one of the pedals when it was positioned at its lowest point. Intuitively you would expect the bicycle to move forward but it doesn’t, it moves backwards towards you while the pedal moves forward anticlockwise relative to the bicycle. I hope you took the time to think about the problem and that you have worked out what the basic issues are to explain clearly why it goes backward. If you haven’t a good way to start the problem is to consider a Penny-farthing bicycle or a child’s tricycle because it eliminates any confusion introduced by the chain and gears. As explained before, one of the purposes of ‘Idea Seeds’ is to introduce you to tackling problems where the solutions require no more than a sound understanding of the basic building blocks. In this problem the basic building blocks involve pulling forces, pushing forces, each force producing an equal in size opposing force - (Newton’s Third Law), and most importantly where the wheel can be considered to act a lever. How is a wheel a lever? In a wheel and axle, the fulcrum is in the centre. The outside rim of the wheel is like the handle of a lever; it just wraps all the way around. It’s time to make some more slips and to sort out the issues involved.

The Fly in the Box

In ‘Idea Seeds #11’ you were given two pictures of a balance one with a fly sitting on the bottom of the box and the other of the same situation but taken a few minutes later with the fly flying round in the box. You were asked if the balance which was in balance in the first picture was still in balance in the second. Here again the solution involves an understanding of the basic laws of nature. If you push something (apply a force to it) that thing pushes back with exactly the same amount of force, In the first picture the mass of the fly and the box being acted on by gravity produces a pushing down force (their weight) on the right hand pan of the balance. The balancing mass on the left hand pan is also being acted on by gravity and it produces a pushing down force (its weight) on that pan. The balancing mass was carefully chosen to make these two forces the same and thus bring the balance into balance.


For the Fly to Fly

For the fly to be able to fly it has to push against something with a force equal to its weight. It does this by pushing the air around its wings in a downward direction. Remember air has mass. It has a density at sea level of 1,2 kg/m^3 (kilograms per cubic metre) Hopefully you will already have made a slip with this bench mark information on it. This downward air has to react against something to provide the push back force. The bottom of the box does just that. The weight of the fly is transferred to the bottom of the box by the mass of downward moving air pushing against it keeping the balance in balance. Friction also plays its part but that is a story for a future article.


Information to Wisdom

Remember, “When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean neither more nor less,” is what the wise Lewis Carroll’s ‘Humpty Dumpty’ had to say about words. To avoid any confusion in discussions involving ‘learning’ and ‘being educated’, like Humpty, I am going to spell out what the following five words: ‘Information’, ‘Knowledge’, ‘Understanding’, ‘Comprehension’ and ‘Wisdom’ mean, neither more nor less.


Milking the Cow

Very often you hear people talk about the ‘knowledge’ in books. This is not true; books contain ‘information’ not ‘knowledge’. Only after you have read the ‘information’ and processed it in your mind and ‘made it your own’ can you claim to have ‘knowledge’. In the real world, when you are told a cow can be milked, you have been given ‘information’. When you have milked the cow or watched a cow being milked, then you can claim ‘knowledge’. Carrying this further, you can only claim ‘understanding’ when you have ‘mentally processed’ all the ‘knowledge’ you have gained and made it part of your ‘world-view’. Using the cow example again, when you know how often you can milk a cow, what milking action is best, how and when the cow needs to be fed, what it needs to be fed, etc, can you claim ‘understanding’. You can begin to claim ‘comprehension’ when you start ‘understanding’ the ‘bigger picture’ or put another way, when you have a ‘comprehensive understanding’ of the role played by each of the ‘parts that make up the whole’. In the cow story this would mean the whole dairy business and how and where it fits in with every thing else in the world.

The measure of Preciseness

The use of adjectives combined with these four words, ‘information’, ‘knowledge’, ‘understanding’ and ‘comprehension’, also play an important role when communicating with others and you should be careful when choosing them. A few examples: scant knowledge, expert knowledge, superficial understanding, deep understanding, etc. give a better indication of ‘preciseness’ but still lack real meaning as no ‘measure’ has been given to them. What ‘measure’, for example, was applied to ‘expert’ in the example above to warrant using it? To make important communications clear and precise, you must add a ‘benchmark’ like the 10 000 hours mentioned in the cartoon strip, to each adjective for it to have real meaning.


Three Wise Men

What is now a proverb: “Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy wealthy and wise.” was first published by Benjamin Franklin in 1735 in his annual journal, no doubt to urge all Americans to work harder. It would be interesting to know what he believed ‘wise’ to mean. Stanford University has an excellent web site at: that deals with a wide range of issues relating to the meaning of ‘wisdom’ starting with the three great wise men from ancient Grecian times; Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, it works through to the present. The general view of wisdom today is much the same as it was in ancient times. “Wise people have extensive factual and theoretical knowledge, have made significant progress in completing the ‘big picture jigsaw puzzle of the world around them’, can be relied upon to make sound judgments and know why things need to be done and when and how to get them done.”

Education as the Search for Achieving Wisdom

When a person comes to my father for career advice he always asks them what it is they want to achieve in life. No one has ever told him they want to achieve wisdom which is exactly what it is they should be setting their sights on. People with wisdom are the only ones who can, he believes, claim to be properly ‘educated’. Despite being a registered Professional Engineer with a university degree he is very aware of the large number of pieces that are missing from his ‘big picture jigsaw puzzle’ and therefore knows how far from being properly educated he is. In his own words, he says, "Don’t get me wrong, I am very happy with who I am and what I have done so far with my life but I would really have liked to have got a little further down ‘the road to wisdom’. When I was young, I simply didn’t put enough effort into finding out more about what was important to concentrate on."


What We Needed More Of

In 1986 my father learnt for the first time about the work that had been carried out in the early 1960’s at Purdue University. They conducted a survey involving 6000 of their engineering graduates on the value and shortcomings of Purdue’s educational programs. The group in the one to five years after graduation felt they had been cheated by not getting enough practical courses. The five to ten years felt they hadn’t been given sufficient theoretical depth. The fifteen to twenty five years felt that more time should have been given to public speaking, business organization, financial matters, and labour relations. The twenty five years onwards felt they should have had more education in music, literature, drama and the fine arts.


Where You Are on The Ladder

Clearly the needs expressed by the four groups are coupled to their evolving careers in engineering and therefore did not surprise. New graduates will always lack practical experience; those moving up the ladder into management positions will have had little or no formal education in law, management, finance, and the sociology. Those who had moved further up the ladder into management positions and needing to sparkle at corporate dinner parties would again find they had little to no education in the things usually talked about at such social events: music, arts, literature etc.


Train Your Sights on Becoming Wise

But the message from this is clear. If you want to succeed then you must be aware of what lies ahead and start preparing for it. Plan and make self improvement a lifelong goal. Start early and train your sights on becoming wise. ‘Find good and wise mentors’ to help you decide on the important things to concentrate on. Hopefully you will have got some pointers from this series of articles

Understand and Make Slips

I suggest you start from what has already been said: “Wise people have extensive factual and theoretical knowledge, have made significant progress in completing the ‘big picture jigsaw puzzle of the world around them’, and can be relied upon to make sound judgments and know why things need to be done, when and how to get them done.” Unpack this and make slips for your filing system.


The Jigsaw Puzzle Approach

The advice my father was given, when starting to research a new topic was to do so in the same way one would put a jigsaw puzzle together if there wasn’t a picture of the finished puzzle. Sort the pieces with straight edges keeping and eye out for the four corner pieces, look for features and colours that match and start building the edges; meaning, find the boundaries and anchor points surrounding the topic. When completed sort the remaining pieces again looking for features and colour matches and start building sub-assemblies all the time keeping an eye on where sub-assemblies fit with each other; meaning, assemble the body parts in this framework and find the soul that gives the topic meaning. Life is of course a little more complex than building a single jigsaw puzzle. It’s more like starting out with a pile of pieces from a large number of 1000 piece puzzles that have all been jumbled together and the boxes destroyed. This doesn’t change things, you still have to go through the same procedure and search the pieces looking for clues as to where they fit.


Reflection, Imitation and Experience

Confucius had this to say about wisdom: By three methods we may learn wisdom. Firstly by ‘reflection’ which is the noblest; secondly by ‘imitation’ which is easiest; thirdly by ‘experience’ which is the bitterest. Do yourself a favour and study the Stanford website on wisdom, ‘reflect’ on it and then make it your own.


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