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Beware of falling objects

I was sitting under a tree; a quiet, thoughtful moment. I felt secure under the umbrella of branches above me. I felt like I was being encircled by a pair of loving arms. I was leaning against the solid trunk. It was so peaceful.

Something fell in front of me. It hit the ground.

“Where did that come from?” I wondered.

There is a popular story that Newton was sitting under an apple tree, an apple fell on his head, and he suddenly thought of the Universal Law of Gravitation.

Gravity. Mmmmmm … things falling to the earth … now this brings back some memories …

Dare I admit it; I trained as a secondary school teacher. My main teaching subjects were maths and science. My specialist senior subject was chemistry. For some reason people, including my own family, think that this makes me some sort of expert in these subjects. Oh how wrong they all are!

There was the time when my husband asked me to explain to him the blow by blow details of how alcohol was produced. He was appalled that I couldn’t explain this to him.

“And you studied chemistry at university?” he asked rather surprised.

“Look it up on the Internet if you’re so interested,” I replied in a rather put out manner.

Then there was the time my daughter asked me for some help with her chemistry homework.

“I have no idea how to do that,” was my response to her request.

“What sort of chemistry teacher are you?” my daughter responded.

“A good point,” I thought secretly. I said nothing in response. I had to think before I replied.

“One who re-learns what she needs to know just before she needs to teach it,” I said.

This sounded so pathetic. I can do better than this. I had this overwhelming need to justify my credibility as an educator.

“I learnt this stuff over 20 years ago and I have never had to use it since. Why would I need to remember it?”

My daughter was unimpressed. I wondered if she had stopped and thought about why she needed to learn this same information. How was this going to help her in her life?

She said nothing.

“I can sit down with you and we can try to work it out together if you want?” I suggested.

I often think about those days when I completed my first degree at university. I wonder whether what I was actually engaged in was learning. I have vivid memories of the hours I spent trying to memorise huge amounts of material, regurgitating it on demand, and then dumping it to make room for the next load of information. How much of what I was exposed to actually made any sense to me and how much of it have I managed to apply in my life since then?

One thing I do know from my early learning is that I learnt valuable skills which have stayed with me to this day. The details of the content may have abandoned me or did I abandon the content. Either way, I know it would not be too difficult for me to pick up where I left off, should I need to or want to.

As I was remembering these little snippets from my life I started to think about my brain’s capacity to store information. Some days I feel so completely overloaded by the information we are required to consume.

A report dated November 2003 claimed that in the previous five years more information had been produced and stored than at any other time in human history.

This massive explosion in information has arguably empowered millions … But others claim that when the fog of new data has cleared we will be left with very little in the way of new knowledge or understanding.

In science … the vast amounts of information researchers now have to wade through means they are focusing on ever-smaller areas of expertise.

As a result, there are fewer “big thinkers”. It has become harder to see the bigger picture, because it has simply become too big.

Will the information age produce a new Darwin?

There certainly seems to be no sign that this information explosion is abating. We are being bombarded with new tools designed to help us deal with the storage and retrieval of information. We are expected to devour all this information and be current on the latest and greatest. We are expected to do this professionally and in our personal lives to ensure we are not left stranded in a world of one.

I do question whether all this information is actually enriching our lives. Are we better people because we are better informed?

I have learnt to gloss over things and take note of things that interest me or that may be useful to me later. I focus on storing snippets of information which act as memory cues for later retrieval. Well, that’s what I think I do.

I do know that I want space free in my brain for other things such as creativity and thinking. I am so tired of that overloaded feeling in my head.

… the information capacity of the brain is approximately 500 terrabytes or ½ a petabyte.

It is hard to envisage what half a petabyte is like in terms of information capacity.

One comparison would be with books. The Bible (a big book!) takes about 4.5 Mbytes to store, so that our brain’s capacity is equivalent to a billion bibles, about the number which stacked floor to ceiling would fill a medium sized church.

… the specialness of the human brain is not because of simple capacity or speed. If size were all that matters in cognition, we have already been beaten by our own creations. Really the specialness of our minds is in their organisation and the things that make us human beyond simple information: compassion, pain, heroism, joy – we are indeed fearfully and wonderfully made.

A. Dix (2005). The brain and the web – a quick backup in case of accidents. Interfaces, 65, pp. 6-7. Winter 2005. http://www.hcibook.com/alan/papers/brain-and-web-2005/

You might well be asking what does the brain have to do with gravity.

These two things reminded me of a recent news item: Keith Richards (from the Rolling Stones) falling out of a coconut palm tree and ending up having to have brain surgery.

Watch for falling stones

I wonder if Keith gave any consideration to the laws of gravity as he was testing out his tree climbing skills. I wonder which technique he used: the front foot or the frog technique? It was a pity he didn’t think about how he was going to get down!

Maybe Keith needs a refresher science lesson or he should consider wearing a protective helmet in future tree climbing adventures.

Rosemary McLeod commented:

Of all the frolics I imagined with Keith Richards, picking coconuts would have been the least likely to feature.

I hadn’t known about his penchant for climbing, but I see he’s previously had a fall – before a 1998 tour, which then had to be delayed as a result. He was up a ladder looking for a book in the library of one of his mansions – that thing for heights again – when it happened.

This just shows the grit and determination of the man, scaling colossal heights “because it’s there”, when he could afford to pay a team of minions to romp up his shelves for him while he dozed on the antiques.

It would appear though that Keith is not the only one to suffer from the problem of falling out of palm trees. However, at the age of 62 he is not a typical candidate for this type of accident. Research on Coconut palm related injuries in the Pacific Islands reported that over a six year period:

A total of 3.4% of all injuries presenting to the surgical department was related to the coconut palm. Eighty-five patients fell from the coconut palm, 16 patients had a coconut fruit fall on them, three patients had a coconut palm fall on them and one patient kicked a coconut palm. The majority of patients who were injured by falling from a coconut palm were young (aged 6–25 years). Eleven of the 16 patients struck by falling fruit were under 25 years of age. The majority of injuries sustained were fractures. Patients falling from coconut palms sustained mainly upper limb fractures (60.1% of all fractures) or spinal fractures (16.3%). Patients injured by falling fruit sustained skull or upper limb fractures. All skull fractures occurred in patients under the age of 10 years.

I’m thrilled to hear Keith is improving and the Bigger Bang tour will continue. I certainly loved their show in Wellington.

Do remember to take note: whenever you sit beneath a tree, watch out for falling objects.

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