One of the more annoying aspects of my PhD course at Oxford is that I have to go to these ‘Personal Development Course’ events every so often, which are about as bad as they sound. In fact, all new biology graduates have to go to them, perhaps fifty in total. The first one, held some time ago now, was about a team building exercise run by some enthusiastic and evangelic (yet sarcastic) organiser, and he made us do a bunch of puzzles and exercise in groups with a whole load of personality tests. I’m pretty familiar with most of this stuff having done it at Cambridge and school, and in any case, I already know what personality type I am.
There was one interesting puzzle he made us do, though. You had to get into pairs and each take a metre-long piece of string with loops in either end. Each person put their hands through the loops while facing their partner such that their arms and string formed two circles that intersected each other. The challenge was to break apart the two circles without removing the string.
I imagined I knew the answer to this one, which I thought would involve the people putting their arms around each other or some equally woolly stuff. After a fruitless few minutes where no-one succeeded, he demonstrated that you were supposed to use some trickery where you fed the string of one through the hand-loop in the end of another. Everyone looked distinctly unimpressed and cheated.
By this point of the morning, we all knew that he was a very pseudo-psychology kinda guy and clearly didn’t like ‘science’, so when he went up to the front of the room to say something, we knew what to expect.
“How many of you gave up before the time had run out?” he asked, in glee.
Most people put their hands up sheepishly.
“Ahhh! That’s because you all thought you knew that two circles couldn’t be broken, right? But if you kept on trying and forgot about what you knew then you would have found out the answer! So why did you give up so easily?” he positively crowed.
Everyone in the audience had their heads bowed, defeated by this charlatan. I, however, was furious and decided to defend the home team of Science and put my hand up.
“It’s because there really is no way of breaking two perfect circles,” I challenged.
He looked quite pleased at this and decided to make an example of this independent thinker in front of him. “Oh yeah? Are you really sure about that?” he said, after lazily looking around the room.
I could tell that this was leading into a trap, but continued on nevertheless. “Pretty damn sure. In fact, I’d be willing to bet a large amount of money on it.”
“Okay,” he laughed, sensing victory. “What about those people who were sure that the Earth was flat, and would have bet money on it? What about those people who didn’t believe the Earth went around the sun? Do you still think you’d win that bet?”
“Yeah. Either way, I’m not going to be paying out before I die, that’s for sure,” I said triumphantly. Science 1 – Woolly Thinking 0!
Immediately, the massed ranks of scientists broke into cheers and I accepted high-fives from everyone as I took a victory lap around the room before being mobbed, raised onto their shoulders and lead out into the street in celebration. Meanwhile the organiser broke down into tears, renounced his faith and can now be found in Oxford Library reading Carl Sagan books.
It’s all true. Well, maybe not the last bit, but they did break out into cheers…