Yesterday we examined the first five memes from a Cracked.com article called “20 Paradoxes Most Human Minds Can’t Wrap Themselves Around“. These memes are not particularly Stupid or Bad, but three of them didn’t fit the definition of paradox. I know the world won’t end because of this. I just thought it would be fun and informative to look at each meme individually and discuss the ideas contained therein. If you’ve come looking for the brain-meltingly heinous memes that are usually my stock-in-trade, I promise: there will be a fresh shipment next week. Until then…
Back in May, the Cracked website produced a page called “20 Paradoxes Most Human Minds Can’t Wrap Themselves Around“. As a subscriber of the Cracked YouTube channel, I am well aware of Cracked’s penchant for misleading clickbaity titles. (Interestingly, the URL contains the string “insane-thought-experiments-thatll-blow-your-mind”, which is an entirely different concept.). I knew going into the article that at least some of the examples they presented would not be true paradoxes, nor would they be particularly difficult to comprehend. I was correct in my suspicion. This week I thought I’d take a break from the depressingly never-ending slideshow of racist, sexist, privilege-soaked memes to examine a group of memes that stretch the meaning of the word paradox to its very breaking point.
Consider the Twin Paradox. In the Twin Paradox, one half of a pair of twins sets off from Earth in a spaceship traveling very close to the speed of light. Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity says that if you travel very close to the speed of light, a stationary observer will see your clock running more slowly than his own clock. Hence, the Earthbound twin, who is stationary for all intents and purposes, witnesses his twin aging slower than he is. When the traveling twin returns, he ought to be younger than the twin he left behind.
But Relativity also tells us that there is no preferred inertial reference frame; i.e. the traveling twin may reasonably view himself as being stationary while Earth speeds away and then returns to him. From the traveling twin’s reference frame, the Earthbound twin’s clock is running more slowly, so the traveling twin might expect to return to find that his Earthbound brother has aged less than he has. If both inertial reference frames are equal, then both twins ought to be correct – a contradictory answer.
Many paradoxes can be resolved with a deeper understanding. The resolution of the Twin Paradox comes from within Special Relativity. Since the traveling twin’s reference frame changes between the outward and homeward legs of his trip, it is he that ages less than his twin. The traveling twin returns to find that his brother (and everybody else on Earth) has experienced more time during his absence than he did.
A paradox need not be unsolveable, or even unsolved, to be called a paradox. But it must lead simultaneously to two contradictory outcomes, even if the contradiction disappears with further study. Without further ado, then, let’s see how Cracked’s list of paradox-bearing memes measures up.
(To be fair, some of the memes do depict actual paradoxes, and when they do, I’ll say so.)