Mental Models: The Galilean Relativity Theory

Understanding How the World Works From A 384-Year-Old Theory

Anastasija Petrovic
6 min readMar 16, 2021

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What can you take away from a 384-year-old mental model?

Well, the question is, what can’t you take away from this 384-year-old mental model?

When we hear Galileo, most of us associate the name with the successful Italian astronomer, physicist, engineer, and overall polymath. What else could we associate him with? Not failure, right? Well, to an extent, yes.

Here Galileo will play a part in our understanding of this mental model, as you could have predicted. So who was Galileo other than a great operatic lyric from Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody.

Who was Galileo again?

Galileo was a natural philosopher, astronomer, and mathematician who made fundamental contributions to the fields of science as we know them today. Some of the ideas he contributed to were the science of motion, astronomy, the strength of materials and the scientific method.

Galileo was also after his death called the “Father of Modern Science.” He is usually called this as he pioneered the experimental scientific method and was the first to use a refracting telescope to make astronomical discoveries.

During his time (1564–1642), Galileo Galilei was making all kinds of observations about the universe; some of the most notable ones were the discovery of craters on the Moon, the phases of Venus, the stars of the Milky Way and the Earth’s position in the universe. He was trying to come up with theories about how our world works, but more specifically, either Earth’s orbit around the sun or the other way around. With this, he kick-started a mental model (more on this later).

What are Mental Models?

Most of us TKS students have probably heard of mental models, but in essence, what are they?

A mental model is an explanation of how something works. It is a framework you carry around in your tool belt to help you interpret the world around you and understand the relationships between things.

For example, supply and demand helps you understand how the economy works. Entropy is a mental model that helps you understand how disorder and decay works.

Mental models are a map that helps you guide your understanding. Like a hammer is a tool carpenters carry around in their toolbelt, mental models are thinking tools that one can use to understand life, make decisions and solve problems. Solving problems is a key application of mental models, as we will talk about later. But why are they important?

Why Do We Need Mental Models?

The key question. Rather than stating it plainly, let me give you an example I found from James Clear’s article.

Richard Feynman, a famous physicist and really cool father (check out this book), applied mental models to his life during his undergraduate career at MIT. There he was known for walking into a classroom with Ph.D. students and solving the problems they deemed impossible.

When asked how he did it, Feynman said that his strategy wasn’t using his intelligence but a strategy he learned in high school. After claiming that Feynman talked too much, his high school physics teacher gave him a Calculus textbook (Advanced Calculus by Woods) and told him not to talk until he had understood the textbook.

Due to the fact that Feynman had self-taught himself this book, he had developed weird ways of doing integrals. Therefore, when the Ph.D. students from MIT couldn’t figure out the problem, it was only because they had only developed standard modes of solving the problems that they had been taught in high school.

Feynman even said that:

The result was, when the guys at MIT or Princeton had trouble doing a certain integral, it was because they couldn’t do it with the standard methods they had learned in school. If it was a contour integration, they would have found it; if it was a simple series expansion, they would have found it. Then I come along and try differentiating under the integral sign, and often it worked. So I got a great reputation for doing integrals, only because my box of tools was different from everybody else’s, and they had tried all their tools on it before giving the problem to me.

The result of who was able to solve the problem came down to the way one saw the problem. Or, in other words, the mental model.

Alright, so mental models are pretty great. But what about the Galilean Relativity model? What kind of mental model is that?

An Explanation of the Theory

First of all, before we proceed, I just want to emphasize the point of this theory:

Understanding Galilean Relativity allows you to consider your perspective in relation to results. Are you really achieving what you think you are? — Galilean Relativity and the Invasion of Scotland

Picture yourself on a ship that has reached a constant velocity (no change in speed over direction). You are below the deck, and there are no windows. You then drop the ball from your raised hand to the floor. To you, below deck, it looks as if the ball is dropping straight down. Alright, so gravity is at work, right? You are then able to perceive a shift as the ball changed its location about 4 feet.

Now, step out of your human skin and imagine you are a fish with x-ray vision, watching the ship go past. You see the human inside, dropping the ball. You take note of the vertical change in the position of the ball. But, you are also able to see a horizontal change of about 20 feet. As the ship moved through the water, so did the ball.

Here we take a look at two different reference points—one existent (x-ray fish) and the other non-existent (human).

How to Apply the Theory to Your Life

Through this analogy, Galileo was able to explain why we didn’t feel the earth moving or doing its orbit.

Additionally, it can also help us understand our limitations. We must always be open to other perspectives if we really want to understand something. Even if you are on a ship and one thing may seem right, there is a chance that there is an x-ray fish swimming by ready to change your entire thought process.

So what is an action item one can do?

  • Look to prove yourself wrong!
  1. Research a new scientific topic!
  2. Find and read through a research paper once.
  3. Write down your takeaways.
  4. Find and read a research paper disagreeing with this concept.
  5. Write down your takeaway on a separate piece of paper.
  6. Compare the takeaways and understand the contrasts. In other words, assign the x-ray fish role and the person with no point of reference.

Feynman was an x-ray ship for the integrals the Ph.D. students from MIT didn’t expect but afterwards welcomed into their classrooms. Make sure that today, you acknowledge that out there, an x-ray fish awaits you.

You get further in life by avoiding repeated stupidity than you do by striving for maximum intelligence. — Charlie Munger

TL;DR

  • A mental model is an explanation of how something works.
  • Mental models are useful as they are frameworks you carry around in your tool belt to help you interpret the world around you and understand the relationships between things.
  • Richard Feynman helped the Ph.D. students from MIT understand that the result of who was able to solve the problem came down to the way one saw the problem. Or, in other words, the mental model.
  • Understanding Galilean Relativity allows you to consider your perspective in relation to results.
  • Understand your limitations through challenging your thought process! You’ll learn more.

Ciao, I’m Anastasija, a 15 y/o innovator at TKS interested in the intersection between bioinformatics and biotechnology! Check out my website, connect with me on LinkedIn and follow me on Twitter!

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Anastasija Petrovic

I’m Anastasija, a 17-year-old interested in the intersection between biotechnology and bioinformatics. I also write about mindsets and emerging technologies!