Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Orientation Ponder

This morning I prepared four envelopes for mailing out checks. I did it production-line stye: first I put stamps on all the envelopes, then return address labels, then stuffed the letters. But when I went to stuff the letters in, I discovered that I’d managed to affix the return address label and stamp on what we normally think of as the “bottom” of the envelope. It gave me a start, and for a moment I was even thinking that I’d have to throw them away and start over — until I realized that the notion of “bottom” was wholly an artificial construct, and that having the postage and address on “upside-down” wouldn’t make any difference at all to the function of the letter.

But my instinctive reaction got the ponder going, and reminded me of a couple of other more interesting examples I’ve heard over the years.

The first one I heard from a comedian (Bill Cosby?). It concerns the way we all eat a slice of pie. This comedian observed that everybody will turn their pie plate until the pointy end of the pie faces them. Why on earth do we do this? I’ve experimented with this, folks (it’s the kind of guy I am, and besides, it was a good excuse to eat more pie!). It makes no difference how the pie is facing, it’s equally easy to eat in all of them. Somewhere deep inside us, there is an “correct orientation” sensor — and it gets unhappy if we have our pie turned the “wrong” way.

The second one I read in a science journal. It was a report on an older piece of research, from the 1930s as I recall. An anthropologist visiting with the Eskimos of northern Canada noted something interesting: all but a few of the Eskimos, when viewing a photograph, would hold the photo in whatever orientation it had when it was handed to them. If they were looking at the photo sideways, or even upside-down, it didn’t make any difference to them at all. Those few Eskimos who did care about the orientation all had something in common: they had learned to read. This anthropologist leapt to the conclusion that visual orientation was irrelevant to humankind until reading was invented — at which time it became crucial. Interesting theory, but most anthropologists and biologists do not believe it’s correct. Gravity on the earth’s surface, just to present one example, definitely has a direction — and orientation to gravity matters a great deal, whether you can read or not. Still, the anthropologist made the observation (and it was subsequently repeated) — and the question remains: why don’t non-reading Eskimos care how a photo is oriented, when the rest of us seem to care a great deal?

I sure don’t have any answers — do you?

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