01/30/2013 11:14 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

On The Fringe Of Reality

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

When I was a kid, maybe 10 years old, I stayed several days with my grandparents in a house they were renting for the summer in a small town on Colorado's western slope. I spent one afternoon hanging out in front, observing ants on the sidewalk. Puffy white clouds drifted across the deep blue sky, and I could feel their shadows whenever they blocked the warmth of the sun.

The ants and the clouds created patterns. The ants formed a distinct trail, and they flowed along like cars on a tiny highway, constrained by some invisible force. The clouds swirled, but there was a general pattern that revealed a direction of flow across the sky. Nothing about these patterns seemed unnatural.

A few big raindrops started to hit the sidewalk, the kind that sometimes fall out of partly sunny skies in the high country. They slowly built up a random array of wet spots on the concrete surface. As I watched, I noticed a small area of sidewalk next to the yard without any spots. It was as if someone was holding an umbrella above that patch. But there was nothing above it. Only the sky.

Maybe this was some kind of freak event. There's no rule that says rain has to hit every location on the ground. Eventually, I reasoned, this unusual natural fluctuation would give way to the laws of probability, and the dry place would fill in. So I continued to watch it.

The shower was sporadic. The dry patch was only a few feet across, but the splats were still six inches apart (what my grandpa, a farmer, wryly called a "six-inch Colorado rain"). I knew that a drop would eventually fall onto the patch, so I kept watching. As the drops got closer together, the patch stayed dry. It was weird. I couldn't explain it, but it was real.

As I watched, the rain picked up and the spots got closer together. A boundary between dry and wet sidewalk began to emerge, first as a ragged fringe, and then as a sharp line. It was a triangle. I looked up and saw the same shape -- the top of a gable on the second story of my grandparents' house. I hadn't noticed, but the rain was falling at an angle. The roof had formed a "shadow" that projected from the grass -- where I didn't see it -- onto the edge of the pavement.

Before it started raining, there hadn't been any phenomenon to see. After the rain spots coalesced, the pattern -- and its cause -- became obvious. But there was some in-between time, when the drops were sparse, and my pattern recognition mechanism might have been tricked. If it had stopped raining, I would have had to live with the uncertain cause of that strange dry patch for the rest of my life.

In the real world, we spend much of our time on the fringes of patterns. When we see a solitary ant crawling along the ground, is she following an invisible trail or is she randomly scouting? When we see one cloud swirling in the sky, is it part of an eddy or is it sailing along in laminar flow? How many clouds or ants does it take before a pattern is irrefutable? What happens when there are just enough raindrops to know a pattern exists, but not enough to see a sharp image that explains it?

In our daily lives, there often seem to be just enough ants, raindrops, and clouds for us to discern patterns, but not enough to be certain or to know what they mean. When we are on that ragged boundary between signal and noise, our built-in evolved pattern recognition systems kick in, sometimes letting us see what we want to see.

Living on that fringe allows us to imagine, find our creativity, and look for significance and inspiration. But the scientific quest for reality requires statistical significance. As a scientist, I love to watch patterns emerge out of haphazard noise, and to speculate about what they might mean. But until I have enough raindrops to be sure (or devise an experiment to make that happen) I have to accept the ambiguity of not knowing whether those patterns represent random chance or reality.

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