Thought Experiments -- Riddle Me This!

Every time we get a new feature exhibit, I have to create a tour/program around it for classes. Some are absolutely easy. Dinosaurs was a no brainer. Egypt, piece of cake. There was absolutely no way these subjects were not going to connect with kids.

At the moment our feature exhibit is a traveling exhibit from the Canada Science and Technology Museum called Canadian Science and Engineering Hall of Fame. It focuses on 54 people whose outstanding scientific or technological achievements have made a great contribution to society. These are some fascinating people who worked in a wide variety of sciences and areas and have made incredible strides in their field.

But I can imagine to a class of students the exhibit at first will look like a bunch of dead, old people. So how to bring these people and their stories to life? How to inspire students to learn more about them and to realize that there are fascinating opportunities for them to have careers in science and engineering? How to share the stories of these people but to also get kids to think a little more like scientists (and to do all of this in an exhibit of a history museum where they get very worried if I bring up the idea of doing experiments around the artifacts)?

One thing I have always found inspiring about truly brilliant people is their ability to see the world differently, how they are able to problem solve and connect pieces in ways that others can't imagine. As I read about their achievements, I wondered can train your brain to work and solve those sorts of puzzles. And, if so, how?

I was intrigued when I learned that many scientists and innovators have played around with "thought experiments." Thought experiments are a riddle or question that can only be solved with imagination. Probably one of the most famous thought experiments and one which had a profound influence was the one that played a role in Albert Einstein developing the theory of special relativity. When he was 16, Einstein imagined chasing a beam of light and wondered what it would be like to ride on light.

So, interspersed with the biographies of these famous scientists and engineers and the stories of the discoveries, I think I'll have students work on a few thought experiments. Maybe you want to try them for yourself? Try them with your family and friends and see where your mind goes.

  • Question: What if you had the power of invisibility?

  • Question: What does the colour red taste like? Smell like?

  • Question: What would it be like to live for years in space?

  • Question: What would the world be like if money didn’t exist?

  • Question: What will the world be like 100 years from now?

  • Question: If you could make something from the movies real, what would it be?

  • Question: If you could meet one famous person (living or dead) and ask that person only one question, who would it be and what would be your question?

  • Question: If you were standing at the magnetic north pole, could you travel in a northerly direction?

  • Question: What if the world was invented five minutes ago and we all have fake memories of personal and community history?

  • Question: How do you know everyone else in the world isn’t a computer?

  • Question: How do you know you’re not dreaming right now? Or that you do not only exist as part of someone else’s dream?

  • Question: Say there's a ship made of 100 wooden planks. You take off plank #1, then replace it with a new plank. You do the same for all the planks, one by one. Is it still the "same ship" as the one you started out with? (More complex variant: while you're doing this, you also use the original planks and build them into a ship. Is that ship the "same" as the original one? It doesn't seem like both ships could be the same as the original ship, because that would mean that two ships are one ship!)

  • Question: Can God create a rock so heavy that God cannot lift it?"

  • Question: If you are the king/queen of a country would you rather be loved or feared?

  • Question: What would the world look like to a 2D person?

  • Question: Is anything completely impossible?

[This activity was inspired by Exploration #57 from the book How To Be An Explorer of the World by Keri Smith.]