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Here’s a brainteaser with a very interesting solution: Out of 50 people chosen at random, what are the odds that two of them share a birthday? There is, believe it or not, about a 97 percent chance. I’ll spare you the dry mathematical proof, but isn’t it interesting that such simple questions can have such profoundly counterintuitive answers?

As a physics major, this is the story of my college career.

For example, no matter how fast you are traveling, you will always measure the speed of light to be the same in all directions.

This might not seem strange at first, but imagine you’re driving down the interstate at 79 mph and another car comes from behind, doing 80 mph. To you, the other car approaches very slowly.

However, even if you’re hurtling down the highway at nearly the speed of light, light itself will always look like it’s going the same constant speed, unlike the other cars.

In fact, you would actually perceive that time itself slows down. Also, everything around you appears shorter in length than it actually is, as you get faster and faster.

Thinking too hard about this still drives me nuts. As a consequence, if you leave your twin sister behind as you make a mad dash to get to Wendy’s before it closes, you will actually be very slightly younger than her when you return.

Here’s another one: Imagine you put a small particle, about the size of an atom, in one side of a shoe box that has a perfectly sealed divider in the middle. It is possible, even probable, that after a long enough time, you could open the box and you’d find the particle on the other side of the divider, despite its having no apparent way of getting there.

This phenomenon, called quantum tunneling, only really applies to very small objects like individual atoms, but it is still astoundingly bizarre. To borrow an analogy from one of my professors, quantum tunneling is like setting down your ping-pong ball on one side of the net, leaving the room, and returning later to find it on the other side with no one else having entered the room and moved it.

To me, the craziest thing about these counterintuitive facts of nature, and something that I have to continually remind myself of, is that it’s all actually true. Scientists have actually observed that two perfectly synchronized clocks will no longer read the same time if one of them goes on a very fast trip around the world. And in fact, quantum tunneling is the basic principle behind certain types of very powerful microscopes.

Modern physics certainly seems mind-blowing to us today, but thousands of years ago, it might have seemed equally mind-blowing to find out that Earth isn’t flat or that human aviation is possible.

Perhaps thousands of years from now, children will be taught the basics of relativity and quantum mechanics in elementary school. There’s no telling what kinds of incredible things we’ll have discovered by then, but one thing is for sure — science only gets weirder and weirder.

Nick Mykins is a columnist from The Daily Tar Heel. He is a senior physics major from Raleigh. Contact him at

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