The Student and The Barometer

By | May 10, 2016

“Minds are like parachutes – they only function when open.” – Thomas Dewar

Here’s a story I heard many years ago that has stuck with me:
[note that a barometer is a compass-looking device used to measure atmospheric pressure]

The Student and The Barometer

Some time ago I received a call from a colleague. He was about to give a student a zero for his answer to a physics question, while the student claimed a perfect score. The instructor and the student agreed to an impartial arbiter, and I was selected.

I read the examination question: “Show how it is possible to determine the height of a tall building with the aid of a barometer.” The student had answered: “Take the barometer to the top of the building, attach a long rope to it, lower it to the street, and then bring it up, measuring the length of the rope. The length of the rope is the height of the building.”

The student really had a strong case for full credit since he had really answered the question completely and correctly! On the other hand, if full credit were given, it could well contribute to a high grade in his physics course and certify competence in physics, but the answer did not confirm this.

I suggested that the student have another try. I gave the student six minutes to answer the question with the warning that the answer should show some knowledge of physics. At the end of five minutes, he hadn’t written anything. I asked if he wished to give up, but he said he had many answers to this problem; he was just thinking of the best one. I excused myself for interrupting him and asked him to please go on.

In the next minute, he dashed off his answer, which read: “Take the barometer to the top of the building and lean over the edge of the roof. Drop the barometer, timing its fall with a stopwatch. Then, using the formula x=0.5*a*t^2, calculate the height of the building.” At this point, I asked my colleague if he would give up. He conceded, and gave the student almost full credit.

While leaving my colleague’s office, I recalled that the student had said that he had other answers to the problem, so I asked him what they were. “Well,” said the student, “there are many ways of getting the height of a tall building with the aid of a barometer. For example, if the sun is shining you could measure the height of the barometer, then set it on end and measure the length of its shadow. Then you measure the length of the skyscraper’s shadow, and thereafter it is a simple matter of proportional arithmetic to work out the height of the skyscraper.
“Fine,” I said, “and others?”

“Yes,” said the student, “there is a very basic measurement method you will like. In this method, you take the barometer and begin to walk up the stairs. As you climb the stairs, you mark off the length of the barometer along the wall. You then count the number of marks, and this will give you the height of the building in barometer units.” “A very direct method.”

“Of course. If you want a more sophisticated method, you can tie the barometer to the end of a string, swing it as a pendulum, and determine the value of g [gravity] at the street level and at the top of the building. From the difference between the two values of g, the height of the building, in principle, can be calculated.”

“On this same tack, you could take the barometer to the top of the building, attach a long rope to it, lower it to just above the street, and then swing it as a pendulum. You could then calculate the height of the building by the period of the precession”.

“Finally,” he concluded, “there are many other ways of solving the problem. Probably the best,” he said, “is to take the barometer to the basement and knock on the superintendent’s door. When the superintendent answers, you speak to him as follows: ‘Mr. Superintendent, here is a fine barometer. If you will tell me the height of the building, I will give you this barometer.”

At this point, I asked the student if he really did not know the conventional answer to this question. He admitted that he did, but said that he was fed up with high school and college instructors trying to teach him how to think.

The name of the student was Niels Bohr, who later received the Nobel Prize for Physics.

Some people will read all of this and think it is stupid and not get anything from it. They probably have what is called a “fixed mindset.” Others will be inspired by it, or at least find it humorous. These people likely have a “growth mindset.”

In a fixed mindset, a person believes their talent, intelligence, and character are fixed traits that can’t be changed. They constantly strive for success (and avoid failure) to prove themselves and look good to other people. They see risk and effort as potential giveaways of their inadequacies. To illustrate this, researcher Carol Dweck offered four-year-olds a choice: They could either redo an easy jigsaw puzzle or try a harder one. The fixed mindset kids played it safe and chose the easier puzzle, in order to prove their existing ability. They told researchers that “smart kids don’t make mistakes.” For people in a fixed mindset, any failure (getting a bad grade, getting fired, etc.) is a setback.

In a growth mindset, a person believes their basic abilities can be improved through hard work, practice, and experience. They have a love of learning rather than a hunger for approval. They don’t fear failure; they learn from it. In Carol Dweck’s study, the growth mindset kids had a hard time understanding why anyone would want to keep doing the same puzzle over and over again instead of stretching themselves to become smarter.

People with a growth mindset are statistically more happy in life as a result of it. Some people may have a fixed mindset about certain topics, and a growth mindset about others. If you say things like:
“It’s difficult for me to lose weight.”
“I’m not good at math.”
“I’m a procrastinator.”
it might benefit you to change to a growth mindset. The good news is that this can be done. For example, in a study of low-achieving seventh graders by Carol Dweck and Lisa Sorich Blackwell, one group of kids attended a class about memory while the other group learned to exercise their mind like a muscle, to make it stronger. The kids that were taught the growth mindset became more motivated and got better math grades, while the other group showed no improvement.

I think most domainers and internet entrepreneurs already have a growth mindset, because that is what is needed to have success in the ever-changing landscape of the Web. Much of what we do is new territory. We are explorers. Pioneers. There is no guidebook, and there is nothing to hold us back.

Interestingly, the handful of answers the student gives the professor in The Student and The Barometer is a trickle of knowledge that can open up the floodgates of the mind. There are hundreds of additional solutions that can be found once you start thinking outside the box. Many of them are listed at, including creative answers such as:

  • Beat on the foundation of the building, using the barometer, until the building comes crashing down. Any sizeable pieces should be pulverized into pebbles and dust. The height of the building will be zero.
  • Drop the barometer off the building onto someone’s head, killing them outright. Wait for the next day’s newspaper and read the part where is says “A man (39) was killed yesterday when a scientist (26) dropped a barometer from the top of an [x] foot building.”
  • Sell the barometer and buy a tape measure.
  • Tie the barometer to a string. Swing it in front of the architect of the building while muttering, “You are getting very sleepy. When I snap my fingers, you will tell me the height of the building.”

I will always be a student of life.
I am not who I was 5 years ago, 10 years ago, or 25 years ago.
I have lived and learned and grown.

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3 thoughts on “The Student and The Barometer

  1. Pingback: Domain Auctions Ending 5/11/2016 - Kickstart Commerce

  2. Craig Hendricks

    Well written article. One thing I do miss though is my past ignorance and innocence. It was easier to be naïve.

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