Intuitive Physics

Are intuitive physics learned or instinctual to humans. Example. Throwing a stone or throwing a ping pong ball. We somehow can judge the air resistance up to a point. Even shooting a bow and arrow to some degree we are able to calculate the work going into the bow and how it will affect the arrow comming out of the bow. Most of the workable intuite physics only seem to work over a very limited scope of weight and speed, things that are very close to what we might experience in our daily lives.

I will try to explain why I am asking this. As a physicist gains knowledge of the universe and whats in it does he continue to build on his intuitive ability to grasp things that might lead him to establishing new theories and ways to test them.

Your OP has a definitional problem. While both intuitive and instinctual responses occur without a process of assessment and reasoning, it’s not necessarily so that they come from the same place, and it’s not certain that learned facts must lead to a calculus more complicated than either. If your perception detects a moving object in the air nearby, is it instinct that says “duck” and intuition that moves the non-dominant hand to intercept it, and learning that tells us which to obey, or is the working of the brain more integrated, or more subtle, than that? Is that what you’re asking?

I may have intermingled intuitive and instinctual, I tend to see a gray area between the two. You framed it better than I did.

I’d say there’s an instinctual ability to aim and throw objects. It comes from the evolution of humans as tool using predators. We see it in dogs also who can pick a thrown tennis ball or Frisbee out of the air. Some of the more subtle aspects of this come from experience, I don’t think we instinctively know the effect of pull on a bow and arrow, that’s a learned behavior that builds on the basic instinctive behavior. But I think it’s a pretty good indication our brains have some specialization in that area.

Isn’t this one of the major limitations of our biological ability to comprehend physics, the fact that humans can easily grasp newtonian physics because we evolved as predators and as animals that could swing between branches or throw rocks and spears (so the concepts are not foreign to us), but there was nothing in our evolution to train us to understand concepts like quantum physics?

On a totally unrelated note, the fact that vomit and feces are disgusting, the fact that we are disgusted by sick people, etc. is a form of intuitive microbiology and intuitive germ theory. However this actually functioned to inhibit genuine understanding of germ theory because earlier scientists would assume the bad smells are what carried diseases. We were mistaking smoke (bad smells) for fire (toxins that produce bad smells). So our intuitive understanding of microbiology got in the way of a genuine understanding of microbiology.

My understanding of early physics (like 16th or 17th century physics) is they tried to find a way to create equations that still made earth the center of the universe. So we ran into problems and had to create all these workarounds to explain why the planets acted the way they did while still supporting the assumption that the earth was the center of the universe and everything revolves around it.

Newtonian physics tells us that an object in motion stays in motion unless an external force slows it down. There’s nothing intuitive about that. It’s as much a learned concept as quantum mechanics.

Yeah but humans know if you throw a rock it will not travel forever. Learning about gravity and wind resistance just explain what we seem to intuitively understand about physics.

Scientific American had a lovely article on intuitive physics, ever so many years (decades!) ago.

One of the neatest ideas was the “impetus” model of throwing a rock. In this model, you throw a rock up and outwards, giving it your impetus. Eventually that runs out, and the rock drops. To the naive eye, the rock drops vertically; it takes an observer over to one side to realize that the rock keeps travelling forward while it is falling.

The impetus model is contrafactual, but it really does model how we perceive reality. It’s how a baseball player thinks when he stands “under” a fly ball to catch it.

One of the most staggeringly counter-intuitive things I learned in physics class is that a hoop will roll more slowly down a ramp than a ball will.

Another really cool one is, while a magnet won’t pick up a penny, it will slow the penny as it falls past the magnet. Nifty!

More to the point, Newtonian physics tells us that two objects of unequal mass will fall to the earth at the same rate. People for thousands of years thought otherwise.

And millions of people today still think otherwise.

IMHO, physics is pretty anti-intuitive, as a whole. And relativity and quantum mechanics are about as non-intuitive as you can get.

I prefer to use “inintuitive”.

A bunch of intuitive physics is fully valid descriptions of mechanics. Other parts are decent approximations. …

For physics in a gravity well, in an atmosphere, from a particular point of view: the active causer of the motion.

From a neutral or arbitrary POV you would readily observe things are different. The hard part is getting to the neutral POV before the availability of high speed recording devices.

From outside an atmosphere you would readily observe things are different. The hard part is getting outside an atmosphere.

From outside a gravity well you would readily observe things are different. The hard part is getting outside a gravity well.

There was a real uphill fight in from roughly the 1500s to the 1900s to make the intellectual jump outside these environments before we had the technology to do it for real.

Many uncurious people still never make the jump.

With current research into the possibility of a holographic universe, it’s not even certain that “reality” is three-dimensional. Reality may be a collection of interactions unfolding on a 2-D surface.

We perceive reality as 3-D because 3-D is a good computation space for solving the sorts of physics problems that were important for our ancestors’ survival. Not because that’s what reality is.

Orbital mechanics was the most contra-intuitive thing I ever studied. I still shudder over it, and hats off to those rocket scientists who handle it.

Some people are more mechanical minded than others, so for them, mechanical physics is more intuitive than others. But even for the mechanically-minded, I would not call mechanics intuitive.

My oldest brother is very intelligent, and it’s a very intuitive intelligence. He can “connect the dots” in many situations that would amaze you. He not only failed Physics in High School, but flunked out of college because of Physics (and that was Physics for Poets, for christsake).

Like Qadgop said, Physics is anti-intuitive. It is used to describe why something happens, which is often different from what intuition would predict (you really don’t need Physics to explain what you expect to happen). A heavier rock seems it should fall faster (since it’s heavier; it obviously has a greater force acting on it). It is only when someone explains the relationship between speed and acceleration (which involves calculus) does it become intuitive that they will fall at the same speed.

And they are more or less correct: On our planet, two objects that differ only in mass do not fall at the same speed - due to the presence of air, the denser one falls faster.

The insight that this is due to air resistance rather than gravity is thus all the more notable.

Play Kerbal Space Program! It’s actually quite intuitive once you internalize it. The usual fun quotes about orbital mechanics (“you slow down to speed up, and speed up to slow down”, or as Niven put it “East takes you Out, Out takes you West, West takes you In, In takes you East, Port and Starboard bring you back.”) sound like nonsense, but actually visualizing how the shape of your orbit changes after the application of thrust makes it seem completely natural after a while.

I couldn’t say if this is true in general–that anything can become intuitive with enough practice and visualization. I think it’s true of Newtonian mechanics and some other things that at least partially map to our notions of reality (i.e., objects flying around in three dimensions). Maybe even Special Relativity. I doubt that anyone has true intuition for Quantum Mechanics.

The Phlogiston theory of combustion is wonderfully intuitive. It describes what we actually see! Here’s a piece of wood in the fireplace. We set it alight, and it burns away, down to a tiny handful of ashes, obviously much less in weight than the original wood.

It wasn’t until we developed the technology to weight all of the combustion gases that this “obvious” idea was knocked down. Our intuition had no way to measure the mass of all that smoke.