Think About It: Left and Right

Our guiding purpose at Eureka is to encourage thinking as a form of play, and what better place to bring a novel thought to all our supporters than on the blog? Logic puzzles and board games abound in the store, but for those who know the rapture of reason, the comfort of contemplation and the simple solace of speculation, sometimes it’s enough not to solve the puzzle or win the game, but just to think about it.

Today we’re thinking about extraterrestrial contact. Imagine for a moment that you have established contact with an alien race in a distant galaxy. You have been trading details of your respective cultures and civilizations via radio (naturally you have many millions of years to wait for a reply), and the aliens are perplexed by a particular concept that keeps coming up in your correspondence: the notion of left and right. “What is this left and right?” they ask in the elaborate mathematical code that allows you to communicate. “Explain this left and right.” How could you make them understand which is which?

Go ahead and muse on that for a while before reading on.



You’re still musing, right?



You can stop musing now, because the fact is you can’t explain left and right to this alien race. The terms only have meaning relative to point of view, and without being able to point out objects in the aliens’ frame of reference, you simply can’t define these directions. When we teach our own children left from right, we use tricks like “what side is your heart on” or “which hand makes an L when you hold it palm-out” – neither of which is necessarily consistent with alien anatomy. Look up “left” or “right” in a dictionary: the definitions are woefully inadequate, along the lines of “the ordinal direction to the east when one is facing north,” which again makes sense only in regard to external concepts. Our alien friends, unfortunately, will just have to be left in the dark; we can’t set them on the right path with these words.

Think about it.

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