Story Time – The Right is Wrong


A physics professor was about to give a student a zero for his answer to a physics question, while the student claimed a perfect score.

Who was right? The instructor and the student agreed to an impartial arbiter (The Judge) , and a learned man was selected.

He read the examination question:

” Q 12: Show how it is possible to determine the height of a tall building using a barometer?”

The student had answered, “Take the barometer to the top of the building, attach a long rope to it, lower it to the street, and then bring it up, measuring the length of the rope. The length of the rope is the height of the building.”

The student really had a strong case for full credit since he had really answered the question completely and correctly!

On the other hand, if full credit were given, it could well contribute to a high grade in his physics course and to certify competence in physics, but the answer did not confirm this.

The judge suggested that the student have another try. He also gave the student six minutes to answer the question with the warning that the answer should show some knowledge physics. At the end of five minutes, he had not written anything. arbiter asked if he wished to give up, but he said he had many answers to this problem; he was just thinking of the best one.

The judge  excused himself for interrupting him and asked him to please go on.

In the next minute, he dashed off his answer which read:

“Take the barometer to the top of the building and lean over the edge of the roof. Drop the barometer, timing its fall with a stopwatch. Then, using the formula x=0.5*a*t^^2, calculate the height of the building.”

At this point, the judge  asked his colleague if he would give up. He conceded, and gave the student almost full credit.

While leaving the colleague’s office, he recalled that the student had said that he had other answers to the problem and asked him what they were.

“Well,” said the student, “there are many ways of getting the height of a tall building with the aid of a barometer. For example, you could take the barometer out on a sunny day and measure the height of the barometer, the length of its shadow, and the length of the shadow of the building, and by the use of simple proportion, determine the height of the building.

“Fine,” he  said, “and others?” “Yes,” said the student, “there is a very basic measurement method you will like. In this method, you take the barometer and begin to walk up the stairs. As you climb the stairs, you mark off the length of the barometer along the wall. You then count the number of marks, and this will give you the height of the building in barometer units.” “A very direct method.” “Of course.

If you want a more sophisticated method, you can tie the barometer to the end of a string, swing it as a pendulum, and determine the value of g at the street level and at the top of the building. From the difference between the two values of g, the height of the building, in principle, can be calculated.”

“On this same tact, you could take the barometer to the top of the building, attach a long rope to it, lower it to just above the street, and then swing it as a pendulum. You could then calculate the height of the building by the period of the precession”.

“Finally,” he concluded, “there are many other ways of solving the problem. Probably the best,” he said, “is to take the barometer to the basement and knock on the superintendent’s door. When the superintendent answers, you speak to him as follows: ‘Mr. Superintendent, here is a fine barometer. If you will tell me the height of the building, I will give you this barometer.”

At this point, the judge asked the student if he really did not know the conventional answer to this question. He admitted that he did, but said that he was fed up with high school and college instructors trying to teach him how to think.

While there is no proven record, some say that this man CV Raman, Indian Nobel laureate. (Read updates below for clarity)

Food for thought:  There always are many answers to questions, ones wrong answer can be other persons right. This makes me question all the feedback I get and that is where the learning happens.

Are you open to the new? To think and to understand openly by introspection and listening are the two biggest missing pieces in the emotional evolution of humans.

This made me wonder about one current situation which I would dedicate this story to – The Indian Lokpal Fiasco - Apparently everybody has the same objective ( Eradicate corruption) but nobody open to understand each other. Who can be our arbiter?

Update 1: 8/02 7.23 PM IST – After a reader comment, another name who could have actually been in the heart of this story is Neils Bohr, Danish Nobel Laureate. Either ways, the LOKPAL team can learn from it!

Update 2: 9/02 6.12 AM IST – Another reader shared a link while appreciating the thought that puts more of this story into perspective. It wasn’t Raman, or Bohr it seems. It was more like a textbook problem. Read it for yourself: http://www.snopes.com/college/exam/barometer.asp

Source: Abridged from various sources including what my grandfather told me (by Abhinandan Chatterjee). Primary reference - Disha - ASJ magazine 2003
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9 thoughts on “Story Time – The Right is Wrong

  1. This is a classic example of twisting the things even when u have a simple answer to a given problem. I feel does not apply to team Lokpal. They had one problem “Corruption” and they also know the simple answer i.e. Strong Lokpal but they wanted every position including the PM under the purview of Lokpal. In the process they rubbed every one i.e. Instructor, teachers, judge, arbitrator, friends etc on the wrong side and also painted a picture that threatened the roots of democracy by challenging the constitution. Hence they lost sheen.

    • Thanks for your thoughts Parimal,on one hand your perspective seems right, on the other, the administrative challenges people have pointed out earlier are worthy of notice too. For me the LOKPAL Team is both Team Anna and The Government (and opposition) – They all oppose corruption but in a rather intolerant manner to each others views. Hence, the story came into the picture, they need to open up, stop being lazy and open up to each other for the common good of the country.

      And for rubbing on the wrong side, in a democracy, there is hardly a wrong side – everyone is in the purview of the law – PM or not!

    • Dear Prasanna, Thanks for the information – I heard this story from my grandfather this way, I tried to check its reference with Neils Bohr. Could find any.
      In case you have any record ( even if it is online) please share it and i will correct this. Hope that works.

      Either ways, lokpal can learn from this:)

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