To follow in the footsteps of fellow blogger Steve Rogalsky, this week I’d like to share with you a moment from my grade 9 chemistry class that changed forever the way that I learn and communicate.

I can still go back to that day, sitting in a school room on the west side of Montreal, watching Martin Hardiman draw circles around circles on a chalkboard and natter on about electrons, protons, and the periodic table.

Suddenly, he stopped writing.

Turning around, he said, “None of this is real.”

Dead silence.

Just like that he had all of our attention.

Bless his heart, for he went on to say something like this:

We spend all this time teaching you about the structure of atoms and electrons and protons and chemical compounds and yet none of it is real; it’s only a model that approximates reality. In fact, there is no way to know what the structure of an atom actually looks like, in reality, because the act of looking at it changes it. Sometimes an electron behaves like a particle, sometimes it behaves like a wave. Is it either? I don’t think so. I think it’s something else entirely. The important thing is to remember is that both a particle and a wave are metaphors for this unapproachable reality. It can be useful to think in terms of models and metaphors because they allow us to understand and predict the behavior of the world around us, but don’t for a moment forget that models and metaphors are not, themselves, real.

In the end, this concept helped to realize that the world that that I see is not the world that actually exists, but only my perception of it. Furthermore, the world that I perceive may differ wildly from the world that you perceive, and that is where life gets interesting.

When someone disagrees with me, that usually means that their mental model differs from mine. I find it helps to remember that neither of us is arbitrarily right or wrong, because it often leads me right into the more interesting questions about the impact or usefulness of my way of thinking, the other way of thinking, or sometimes even suggests an entirely new way of thinking.

Thank you, Martin. May you rest in peace knowing that you made a profound difference, well beyond the subject matter, on at least one of your students.