Thinking Like a Rat

Richard Feynman

All experiments in psychology are not of this [cargo cult] type, however. For example there have been many experiments running rats through all kinds of mazes, and so on—with little clear result. But in 1937 a man named Young did a very interesting one. He had a long corridor with doors all along one side where the rats came in, and doors along the other side where the food was. He wanted to see if he could train rats to go to the third door down from wherever he started them off. No. The rats went immediately to the door where the food had been the time before.

The question was, how did the rats know, because the corridor was so beautifully built and so uniform, that this was the same door as before? Obviously there was something about the door that was different from the other doors. So he painted the doors very carefully, arranging the textures on the faces of the doors exactly the same. Still the rats could tell. Then he thought maybe they were smelling the food, so he used chemicals to change the smell after each run. Still the rats could tell. Then he realized the rats might be able to tell by seeing the lights and the arrangement in the laboratory like any commonsense person. So he covered the corridor, and still the rats could tell.

He finally found that they could tell by the way the floor sounded when they ran over it. And he could only fix that by putting his corridor in sand. So he covered one after another of all possible clues and finally was able to fool the rats so that they had to learn to go to the third door. If he relaxed any of his conditions, the rats could tell.

Now, from a scientific standpoint, that is an A-number-one experiment. That is the experiment that makes rat-running experiments sensible, because it uncovers the clues that the rat is really using — not what you think it’s using. And that is the experiment that tells exactly what conditions you have to use in order to be careful and control everything in an experiment with rat-running.

I looked into the subsequent history of this research. The next experiment, and the one after that, never referred to Mr. Young. They never used any of his criteria of putting the corridor on sand, or of being very careful. They just went right on running rats in the same old way, and paid no attention to the great discoveries of Mr. Young, and his papers are not referred to, because he didn’t discover anything about rats. In fact, he discovered all the things you have to do to discover something about rats. But not paying attention to experiments like that is a characteristic of cargo cult science.—Richard Feynman, 1974 Commencement Address


Spider Webs and Mucus

Feels icky when they’re in your lungs

Doesn’t sound terribly appetizing, does it? But that’s only half the problem: Since we’ve returned from vacation, my lung feels as if it were filled with spider webs interspersed with globs of mucus. The choking that drove me crazy during the trip has gone down. What remains are juicy coughs which, instead of bringing up the gunk in the chest, seems to redistribute it among the spider webs.

In addition to another, shorter, course of antibiotics, I have been on Advair and Albuterol to fight the asthma that accompanied the choking spasms of coughing. I just wonder how long it will take before the coughing stops. After all, it has been going on for a little over three weeks now.

It is amazing what life can throw at one when one isn’t prepared. And how is one ever prepared to fend off an infection or a virus? They just seem to come higgledy-piggledy and have their way with you.

I have seen several of my best friends afflicted similarly in this last year—all with different things. One had MRSA; another, incipient Alzheimer’s; and yet another, a broken hip and wrist from a fall. When one is young, one could just don jogging shorts and go through all the approved little exercise routines, patting oneself on the back for doing the right thing and preventing any illnesses. One eats one’s prepackaged salad greens with the desired sugary/fatty dressing, the right breakfast cereal. I guess it helps, but there are no guarantees in this life.

One has to be eternally vigilant, but one is still mortal.

Photo Credit: The photo above comes from the National Geographic for Kids website.