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March 9, 2007

When Albert Einstein met Jean Piaget

From the March, 1957 Scientific American:

    Children and Physics

    Does a child's first conception of velocity include comprehension of it as a function of distance and time, or is his notion more primitive and intuitive? Albert Einstein himself posed this question to me in 1928 when I was demonstrating some experiments on causality to him one day. I have since performed a very simple experiment which shows that a child does not think of velocity in terms of the distance-time relation. We place before the child two tunnels, one of which is obviously much longer than the other, and then we push a doll through each tunnel with a metal rod in such a way that the dolls arrive at the other end of both tunnels simultaneously. We ask the child:

    "Is one tunnel longer than the other?"
    "Yes, that one."
    "Did both dolls go through the tunnels at the same speed, or did one go faster than the other?"
    "The same speed."
    "Because they arrived at the same time."

    Jean Piaget

March 9, 2007 at 04:01 PM | Permalink


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Perhaps children's concept of velocity is related to the human concept of time. As time is a measure of human experience we only percieve it's duration relative to our total accumulation of that entity. When an infant is born she crys until she is fed. This is repeated until sufficient experience has been gained. After all, it has been a lifetime since last she ate. When we go to school as slightly older children we are always amazed that we have to go to school again after a summer of three months.
This changes drastically after enough summers have been accumulated in our lives. We arrive at that point, as I often do, when we cannot remember whether an event occured last year or 3 or 4 years ago. Our perception of the speed of passing of time changes as more human experience is gathered. Each interval becomes a smaller and smaller fraction of our total experience thus giving us the feeling that time is accelerating. Since children have only minimal experience as a reference time drags and their concept of velocity as distance travelled per unit of time suffers.

Posted by: Larry | Mar 11, 2007 2:44:27 PM

Either the children understand the concept of wormholes and gave cause to the Einstein-Rosen Bridge, or they are in their pre-operational stage where the concept of 'conservation' isn't as pronounced. For instance, in conversation of liquids, if you pour a drinky drink into a tall thin glass, and then pour the same glass into a short fat one, the child would believe that there is less in the short one. This pre-operational thinking, while usually over by age 7, actually work in bars today.

Beyond this, native physics have been proven to be in-place much sooner than Piaget has demonstrated. Children instinctively know these sorts of things, but cannot explain them well and get confused when trying to explain it (some have theorized it is because of an undeveloped short term memory which focuses on centration -- the ability to only pay attention to one item in an equation). But when children aren't asked about this, but asked to perform tasks such as following a hidden object within these same tunnels with a constant velocity before and after, they are able to estimate pretty accurately how long it should take to traverse the distance. Eye trackers have shown that even infants understand the same ideals that Piaget said they couldn't, even though all the researchers are correct in many ways and useful to the study.

Speaking of researching Piaget's conversation of liquids, its close enough to noon...I think I'm to do some experiments of my own.

Posted by: clifyt | Mar 10, 2007 9:39:42 AM

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