Sunday, November 4, 2012

Approaching Infinity

Going about our work as people - either the top, middle or the bottom of society - there invariably comes a time when we run into self-limiting beliefs. This paradigm busting exercise usually helps; it comes from the late Sidney Coleman, as presented to his graduate physics class at Harvard:

Hold a ball in both hands and rotate it by three hundred and sixty degrees. That's not so awkward, you may say. Now hold the ball cupped in one hand, palm facing up. Your goal is to rotate the sphere while always keeping your palm facing up.

Keeping your palm facing up, rotate the ball inward towards your body. At ninety degrees - one quarter of a full rotation - the ball is comfortably tucked under your arm.

Keep on rotating in the same direction, palm facing up. At one hundred and eighty degrees - half a rotation - your arm now sticks out towards the back of your body to keep the ball cupped in your palm.

As you keep rotating to two hundred and seventy degrees - three quarters of a rotation - in order to maintain your palm facing up, your arm sticks awkwardly out to the side, ball precariously perched on top.

At this point, you may feel that it is impossible to rotate the last ninety degrees to complete one full rotation. If you try, however, you will find that you can continue rotating the ball; keeping your palm up by raising your upper arm and bending your elbow so that your forearm sticks straight forward.

The ball has now rotated by three hundred and sixty degrees - one full rotation. If you've done everything right, however, your arm should be crooked in a maximally painful and awkward position.

To relieve the pain, continue rotating by an additional ninety degrees to one and a quarter turns, palm up all the time. The ball should now be hovering over your head, and the painful tension in your shoulder should be somewhat lessened.

Finally, like a waiter presenting a tray containing the piece de resistance, continue the motion for the final three quarters of a turn, ending with the ball and your arm (wr.hat a relief) back in its original position.

If you have managed to perform these steps correctly, and without personal damage, you will find that the trajectory of the ball has traced out an infinity sign in space. You have just proven that, objects must be rotated around twice to return to their original configuration i.e. by seven hundred and twenty degrees.

Relating it back to behaviour we say things like: ”think twice before you speak” or ”once bitten, twice shy”. Actually, we have become conditioned to single cycles; without realizing that the second rotation is where the magic happens. We stop halfway when infinity is beckoning.

Although this exercise might seem no more than some fancy and painful basketball move, it’s a reminder that “second chances” complete unfinished business; and that we always have the option to give up what we know (the past) for what we can learn (the future). An idea that should console you as you ice your shoulder.

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