The Beauty of Breaking Things Down

Richard Feynman wrote the book “The Pleasure of Finding Things Out“, and it is a good read. If you are less into reading, it has been turned into video as well. Here is a cut from the series. But what Feynman was really talking about was the beauty of breaking things down into their component parts to see how they really work. This challenges our beliefs in ways that can be thrilling.

Here is a fun example that I bumped into today. The weight loss business is huge. It is worth billions. Why? Well, thank the Lord for those in the business, (1) losing weight is an national, indeed international obsession, (2) it is easy to put on weight with our current lifestyles, and (3) it is difficult to lose weight. So we are teased by an endless array of products and services that promise relief.

So, let’s break this down. What gives us our “weight”? Well, it is obviously food, right? So far so good. So we then take a small step forward and hypothesize that our food intake affects our weight. But how? We are told that this depends on the number of “calories” the food we eat “has”. So if we reduce our caloric intake, we reduce the effect and lose weight, right? This is the conventional wisdom and we have become fiends for counting calories.

But what is a calorie? Hmmm … it is the potential energy value of food, right? Well, if we consume lots of calories, we should get more potential energy, right? And therefore, if the body can’t use that energy, it stores it in the form of fat, right?`So far so good. But how do scientists generate a measure of the potential energy value of food? You might be surprised that the way they do it has nothing to do with what actually happens in your digestive system. Sandy Weil offers the real basis for measuring “caloric content”.  You might be surprised to learn that the presumption behind this method is that your body is essential like a water heater.

And how does the digestive system react to food intake? The truth is that we really don’t understand this very well at all. We are only just finding out that how our body reacts depends on bacteria in out tummies. And the system works not just to produce energy and waste, it affects our immune systems as well.

So why is it that we pay any attention to companies that are selling “diet products”? Well, we are a trusting lot aren’t we?


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