Astro-Gymnastics – Piet Hein


Go on a starlit night,
  stand on your head,
leave your feet dangling
  outwards into space,
and let the starry
  firmament you tread
be, for the moment,
  your elected base.

Feel Earth’s colossal weight
  of ice and granite,
of molten magma,
  water, iron, and lead;
and briefly hold
  this strangely solid planet
balanced upon
  your strangely solid head.

– Piet Hein

Yesterday, the hugely popular web-comic xkcd ran a piece that immediately brought to mind this poem. Coincidentally, last week I almost posted this instead of the Updike one that I eventually went with.

Piet Hein was a prolific writer of witty epigrams that he called gruks, or ‘grooks’ in English. Many of them, on first reading, seem absurd or nonsense but they often have some point that makes you stop and think.

“Astro-Gymnastics” is a reminder that the human brain evolved to perceive the universe in a way that differs from reality, and this deeply affects every human activity. Earth’s surface is relatively large on the scale of a human, and because of gravity we live in effectively a two-and-a-half dimensional world – while we need to be aware of depths for self-preservation, it gives no advantage to live in awe and fear of the vast gulf above us. Scientists attempt to remove this anthropocentric bias from their observations and conclusions, and one technique in physics is to shift the frame of reference to that of the phenomenon they are investigating.


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