The astronaut answers

Remember this?


The correct answer is……it falls to the ground.

The answers you gave are below.


70% of you are correct! Well done!

There is gravity on the moon, it is just weaker than on earth as the moon has a smaller mass so the pencil falls slower. No floating or drifting away.

It is a common question used to probe whether people truly understand an abstract concept like gravity.

Usually only about 50% get it correct. Perhaps systemsy types are brainier. Or more probably it was presented on the internet, 10 seconds away from Google providing the answer. The important question is…why would the other (usual) 50% think the pencil would float away or hover where it is?

Everyone has heard of gravity but “knowing” it and knowing it are 2 different things.


Bugger, just dropped me pen

The other 50% when questioned say things like “There is no air on the moon“. People equate gravity with having an atmosphere, because where there isn’t air, i.e. in space, things float. The moon is “in space” so things float there.

This lady describes it well.

About 6-7 years ago, I was in a philosophy class at the University of Wisconsin, Madison (good science/engineering school) and the teaching assistant was explaining Descartes.

He was trying to show how things don’t always happen the way we think they will and explained that, while a pen always falls when you drop it on Earth, it would just float away if you let go of it on the Moon. My jaw dropped a little. I blurted “What?!” Looking around the room, I saw that only my friend Mark and one other student looked confused by the TA’s statement. The other 17 people just looked at me like “What’s your problem?” “But a pen would fall if you dropped it on the Moon, just more slowly.” I protested.

No it wouldn’t,” the TA explained calmly, “because you’re too far away from the Earth’s gravity.” Think. Think. Aha! “You saw the APOLLO astronauts walking around on the Moon, didn’t you?

I countered, “why didn’t they float away?”

Because they were wearing heavy boots.” he responded, as if this made perfect sense (remember, this is a Philosophy TA who’s had plenty of logic classes). By then I realized that we were each living in totally different worlds, and did not speak each others language, so I gave up.

– See more at

 That’s gravity from the world of physics, insert your concept of choice from the world of work and see if the same holds.  It’s people’s mental models crashing against each other like continental drift, right there.

But more importantly, that teacher thought he understood gravity, but only as an answer to questions like “what makes apples fall down and not up?”. They had memorised a word but not had the chance to properly understood the ramifications of it. It is the ramifications of what a concept is, and how and where it applies that is the thing that tests whether they know it compared with just having memorised the word.

I think it is when with a shock of recognition, you see a concept out in the wild, just as described and memorised from a book, that’s when you’ve learnt it. You spot it capering around like woodland creature out of the confines of a video or a book, you think “hang on! that’s people not realising that external motivators don’t work! I know that! It’s forgetting autonomy, mastery & purpose!“. That’s when you know it, and then you start seeing it everywhere.

You’re watching the news on the TV and think “Hang on! Why are they proposing linking [insert profession of choice] pay with performance? Don’t they know it’s mainly the system, and what about the variation inherent in it? They’ll be rewarding people mainly for randomness!”

Or “What? League tables for [insert organisation of choice]? That will game the system!”

Or “Why are they saying that they have a robust policy on [insert abstract concept of choice]? They may have a piece of paper called a policy, but this has shown that in reality that’s all they have!

Just like gravity is everywhere not just on earth, this stuff is everywhere too, and when people start seeing it in all sorts of everywhere that’s when have internalised it as a mental model to understand things.

At least I THINK that's what they shout at me

At least I THINK that’s what they shout at me

This is the sort of thing that causes people to stare, point, and shout “CULT!”.

I think it is because people are not comfortable with others having an explicit framework for understanding the world.

They bracket it with communism or the tin-foil-hat brigade as it seems that it is provided as the answer to every situation.

I don’t see it as an answer at all. It is just a way of asking better questions.


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8 Responses to The astronaut answers

  1. Dr Deming used to say that every theory may be right in some world. I think he was in Miami when he said ‘you can predict snow tomorrow, its a free country’.


  2. Matt says:

    I was just at a family gathering over the weekend and following a discussion with my brother-in-law (who is a local gov senior accountant) I ended up feeling like I was accused of being in a cult for daring to think that setting targets was a bad thing. It’s so frustrating knowing the problems but also knowing that short of showing them (which at a family gathering isn’t really possible) you don’t possess enough shared language/experience/learning to successfully communicate the answer to those problems.


    • ThinkPurpose says:

      I call this “the policy officer’s dilemma”.
      Imagine you worked in a benefits service and said “we looked at how targets affected our service and found it made it worse as we worked to the targets rather than the purpose, ie solving our customers problems with them. We got rid of the targets and the behaviour went and our customers got a
      better service”.

      Nobody could argue with that. You’re speaking from your own experience, they weren’t there. They can’t say “no targets DIDNT work like that” But arguing in the abstract is impossible. If you are talking in general, then it’s all over. “In general” doesn’t exist, only particular contexts. It doesn’t matter that all the evidence shows that in ALL of these particular contexts targets are silly and harmful. Arguing in the abstract goes round in circles. It needs testing in a context.
      I gave up arguing in the abstract and as a consequence lost weight, gained a wide circle of popular friends and
      gained a pay rise.
      No I didn’t, but at least I had fewer pointless unwinnable arguments.


  3. Brett says:

    You are right on when you say, “when people start seeing it in all sorts of everywhere that’s when have internalised it as a mental model to understand things.” Reminds me a bit of the saying, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear”. You can’t learn something until you are ready, and when you are ready you can’t help but learn. Which, of course, is all about asking questions.

    I have to admit to blurting out my own “What?!” when I read the protestation that, “a pen would fall if you dropped it on the Moon, just more slowly.” A pen would, of course, drop at the same speed as anything else you dropped while standing on the moon. A feather, for example, as demonstrated by the Apollo 15 astronauts. (


    • ThinkPurpose says:

      Ah, I should have been more particular with the words, I should have said, ““a pen would fall if you dropped it on the Moon, just more slowly than on earth”. I can assure you that I’m familiar with the works of Galileo.


      • Brett says:

        In retrospect, I probably should have paid a bit closer attention to the context of the paragraph, which was comparing dropping something on the moon to dropping something on Earth. My initial reaction was strengthened by the later reference to “heavy boots”. Just goes to show the importance of context, frame of reference, and – of course – paying attention to what’s actually being discussed. 🙂


  4. Pingback: Take my Astronaut quiz! | thinkpurpose

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