Saturday, March 9, 2013

Assume a Spherical Cow?

Right now someone (perhaps even you) is staring up at that cute little round cow my daughter drew and thinking: "Was this title created by a random word generator?" No, but good guess.

It's actually based on a physics joke my husband once told me. It's the kind of joke that few people outside of physicists (and their groupies) appreciate. When I tell it to people in real life, they tend to stare at me blankly. (Unless they're nerds, in which case, they've already heard it, and we chuckle together. If you know the joke already, congratulations, you've passed the nerd test and can skip to the last paragraph.) If you haven't heard it, I'll just picture you staring blankly at the screen. The joke goes something like this:

A dairy farmer is having trouble with her cows, who suddenly won't produce milk. She tries special feed, has them tested for diseases and calls in a variety of veterinary specialists, but no one can figure out what's wrong. Finally, in desperation, she calls on the most brilliant people she can think of: a team of physicists from the local university. The physicists scour the farm taking measurements and samples, which they take back to their lab to analyze. Weeks go by, and the farmer is in despair. At last, she receives a phone call from the lead physicist who tells her they thinks they know what's wrong with the cows and what to do about it. "What a relief," says the farmer, "Let's hear it." "Well," says the physicist, "first, we assume a spherical cow..."

Assume a spherical cow!

That's the punch line.

You're supposed to laugh now.


Get it?

Ok, fine. The physicist created an idealized, overly simplified version of reality in order to solve a complex problem, but in doing so, made it impossible to solve the problem.

Oh, come on.

You're staring blankly, aren't you? (Unless you're a science nerd. Or nerd groupie. In which case, you're chuckling.)

As for the rest of you, trust me. Nerds love this stuff. If you ever have to do standup at a convention for theoretical physicists, you'll thank me for this one.

But now you may be wondering, "What does this have to do with parenting?" Well, everything. Isn't assuming a perfect world, with perfect conditions, and perfectly uniform children, who will all respond in perfectly predictable ways to any given parenting technique, what people -- from your mother-in-law to your pediatrician to your some random stranger at the park to a host of so-called "experts" -- so often do when they give you advice? But the world isn't perfect. And neither children nor cows fit neatly into a theoretical framework. Instead, we parents -- we humans -- have to struggle with the messy, imperfect reality. But fortunately, that makes for better stories to share too. And that is what I hope this little corner of the Internet will be all about.


  1. Hi Amy -

    Typed your domain name into my browser to see if someone had taken it. Glad to see someone else knows the joke! Best wishes,

    John Miller
    Waltham, MA

    1. John, I was surprised it was available when I bought it. Don't you hate how all the good domain names are already taken? ;)