Thursday, April 25, 2013

Trip into space with my granddaughter, Red.

This is the first in a series of travel logs about a particular expedition that Jack shared with his grand-daughter Red. 

Me and Little Red

I was sitting on the porch with my grand-daughter, Red, and we were talking about a Beekman cartoon in the Sunday paper where he was explaining how to draw pictures using vanishing points to make your drawings more realistic looking.

"I know all about this"; She said; "We've learned about perspective in Art Class."

I said; "Really?"

She continued; "Yeah, Grandpa. When you draw a picture you need to draw the things that are close up bigger than the things which are far away so that things look real - so that your picture looks the same as what we actually see when we look at things."

"Realistic?"; I ventured.

"Yeah, like what's in the real world"; She said.

"So, in the real world, things that are far away are smaller than things that are close up?"

"No, Grandpa."; She laughed; "They're not really smaller. They just look smaller."

She pointed towards an old garden shed by the back fence; "See that old shed?"


"See how small it looks over there?"

"Yes, it looks pretty small."

She extended one arm towards the shed and said; Stretch out your arm like this and stick your thumb up."

I did as she asked.

"Now close one eye and move your thumb so that it covers the shed."

I did and, sure enough, it did completely cover the shed.

"See", She said; "You can cover the whole thing with just your thumb."

Of course, I knew all about this - I've had an art class or two along the way, myself. But I was in a good mood so I thought I'd give Red a bit of a hard time.

"So"; I asked, "you're trying to tell me that the shed is really smaller than my thumb?"

"No, Grandpa Jack, Don't be silly. It's not really smaller. It just looks smaller because it's way over there. "

 "Oh, I don't know." I said seriously; "I think it might really be smaller."

Red looked at me like I'd gone mad. : "It can't really be smaller; that would be impossible!"

"Okay, let's try a little experiment."; I pressed; "Let's you and me walk over to that shed and see whether it's really as small as it looks." 

The experiment:

Red gave me a puzzled look as we started towards the shed. And sure enough, as we walked towards it, the shed got larger. Pretty soon Red said; "See, it's bigger than my whole hand."

And when we were right up against it, we saw that it was full size (just as we expected). We could see that in reality it was bigger than my thumb. In fact, it was much bigger than we were. She said smugly; "I knew it would be."

I offered; "But does this really PROVE that objects which are far away are NOT really smaller?"

Red gave me another funny look and said; "Yes, because we have walked over here and we can see with our own eyes that it is really large."  

I  countered: "But the question is whether things are really smaller when they are far away. When we were over there by the house and the shed was far away, was it REALLY smaller than your thumb? Or did it, as you believe, just look smaller?"

Red looked more puzzled but I pressed my point; "As we stand next to the shed it is very big, sure, but we are no longer far away so have we really proven that it was not really smaller when we were far away?"

To this she said; "But, Grandpa, We can touch it and we can feel that it's a solid building and not an inflatable-like-thing that somehow inflates as we get closer or deflates as we move farther away. We both know that things can't grow and shrink like that. So, how can it get smaller? How can it possibly change size - huh?"

My grand-daughter was pretty convinced by this evidence that what she sees with her own eyes and she feels with her own hands; along with what she knows is, in fact, true. But I had another idea:

I proposed; "What if I walk away again but this time you stay here next to the shed and tell me if it's getting smaller."

When I was some distance away, I looked back and sure enough the shed looked like it was small again. But this time I called to my grand-daughter and asked if the shed is still large.

She, of course, replied; "Yes, it's still large over here, it hasn't changed since you left".
 Then she asked; "Does it look smaller to you from over there?"

When I said; "Yes." She gloated;"Ah hah -  see? It's just as I said, things really don't grow and shrink as we move closer and farther away."

As she walked over to join me she continued; "So this proves it. This proves that it must be an illusion. And since the shed just looks smaller it could be called an optical illusion, right?"

I said to myself; "Smart kid."

I wasn't ready to give up, yet.

"But wait!"; I ventured;  "I notice that as I walked away, both you and the shed got smaller. So how do I trust you to tell me if the shed wasn't smaller when you were smaller as well." I continued; "You could no longer be trusted because you had become part of the experiment. You lost your objectivity. You lost your perspective."

Red gave me an exasperated sigh and said; "But, grandpa Jack, you're trying to tell me that I shrunk as you walked away from me?"  "Now you're just talking crazy, grandpa"; she laughed.
"As you walked away from me, you got smaller too. But you didn't really get smaller did you?"

I had to admit that I didn't feel any smaller as I walked away.  And I didn't look any smaller to myself. "But"; I countered. "That doesn't prove anything either because, just like you, I had become part of the experiment and hadn't changed the distance between me and myself so of course,  from my vantage point,  I had remained the same size."

Poor Red had just about had it with me by now.

She pleaded; "But grandpa, you and I both know that physical objects don't just expand and shrink. They are hard, solid objects and they are not flexible enough to expand and contract." She continued; "And we, ourselves, don't get bigger and smaller either. We can't do it even if we wanted to! We know this! Everybody knows this. She concluded; "So when things look smaller in the distance it must be exactly that; they just look smaller! It's just an optical illusion, grandpa!"

Too much?

I could see that Red had had just about enough of this conversation so I didn't suggest a second experiment that I thought would further test this hypothesis.

"You're absolutely right, Red." I offered. "Of course we all know that what you say is true. But, remember that there was once a time in human history - not really that long ago - when everyone knew that the earth was flat and that it was really the center of the universe. It was obvious - how could it be otherwise?"

I continued; "Everyone could see that the sun and moon and all the stars rotated around the earth. All you had to do was to look up and see the sun rise up in the morning, travel across the sky and set in the evening. And the moon and stars moved the same way across the nighttime sky. You could see it with your own eyes! And, " I added, "all the smart people knew this was true as well: the government, the scientists, and the religious leaders all had figured this out and knew that this was how the universe worked."

Red smiled at me and said; "Sure, grandpa, I know that. But we're smarter now. We know a lot more about our universe than they did back then."

To this I replied; "But do you think we know everything?"

She stood up and said; "I'd love to stay and talk, Grandpa Jack, but Mom just texted - I've gotta go home, now."

Red gave me a big hug and then ran off and left me alone with my thoughts.  And, knowing Red, I was sure that I had sent her home with some thoughts of her own.

[ Continue to Part II ]

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