September 2021
Volume 21, Issue 9
Open Access
Vision Sciences Society Annual Meeting Abstract  |   September 2021
Tangled Physics: Knots as a challenge for physical scene understanding
Author Affiliations & Notes
  • Sholei Croom
    Johns Hopkins University
  • Chaz Firestone
    Johns Hopkins University
  • Footnotes
    Acknowledgements  This work was funded by NSF BCS #2021053 awarded to C.F
Journal of Vision September 2021, Vol.21, 2653. doi:
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      Sholei Croom, Chaz Firestone; Tangled Physics: Knots as a challenge for physical scene understanding. Journal of Vision 2021;21(9):2653.

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      © ARVO (1962-2015); The Authors (2016-present)

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A resurgence of interest in intuitive physics has revealed a remarkable capacity in humans to make common-sense predictions about the unfolding of physical scenes. For example, recent work has shown that observers can correctly judge properties such as stability, weight distribution, gravity and collision physics, especially in rich naturalistic images. These results have suggested that physical scene understanding recruits a general-purpose “physics engine” that reliably simulates how scenes will unfold. Here, we complicate this picture by introducing knots to the study of intuitive physics. Knots are naturalistic stimuli that appear across cultures and time periods, and are widely used in both mundane scenarios (e.g., closing a bag or tying one’s shoes) and more technical applications (e.g., securing a boat or even supporting a rock-climber). Yet, here we show that even basic judgments about knots strain human physical reasoning. Observers viewed photographs of simple “bends” (i.e., knots joining two lengths of string) that share strong visual similarity but greatly differ in structural integrity. For example, observers saw not only “reef” knots (a common knot used for millennia), but also “thief” knots (which differ only in the position of a single strand but are significantly less secure than “reefs”), along with “granny” and “grief” knots (which share a similar relationship). In a two-alternative forced-choice task, observers judged each knot’s stability relative to every other knot. Strikingly, observers reliably ranked weaker knots as strong and stronger knots as weak, both across knot-families (e.g., incorrectly judging granny knots as stronger than reef knots) and within a given family (e.g., failing to judge “thiefs” as weaker than “reefs”). These failures challenge a general-purpose “physics engine” hypothesis, and perhaps suggest that knots and other examples of soft-body physics recruit different cognitive processes than rigid-body physics.


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