What being gifted means (2) – The example of the barometer

The following story is generally presented as a moment in Niels Bohr‘s life. In fact, it has been created by Dr Calandra during the 1950’s, in order to highlight the importance of thinking while in the process of learning. Initially published in a Readers’ Digest issue it is nowaday well known on internet.

I find it rather symbolic of the way a gifted one can think and behave.

Herafter is Dr Calandra’s story (I personally added the mention of the chapters in order to point out way of thinking and behaviour).

Chapter 1 : misunderstanding of implicits and thinking outside the box

Some time ago I received a call from a colleague who asked if I would be the referee on the grading of an examination question. He was about to give a student a zero for his answer to a physics question, while the student claimed he should receive a perfect score and would if the system were not set up against the student. The instructor and the student agreed to submit this to an impartial arbiter, and I was selected.

I went to my colleague’s office and read the examination question, “Show how it is possible to determine the height of a tall building with the aid of a barometer.”

The student had answered, “Take a barometer to the top of the building, attach a long rope to it, lower the barometer to the street and then bring it up, measuring the length of the rope. The length of the rope is the height of the building.”

I pointed out that the student really had a strong case for full credit since he had answered the question completely and correctly. On the other hand, if full credit was given, it could well contribute to a high grade for the student in his physics course. A high grade is supposed to certify competence in physics, but the answer did not confirm this. I suggested that the student have another try at answering the question. I was not surprised that my colleague agreed, but I was surprised that the student did.

Chapter 2 : divergent thinking

I gave the student six minutes to answer the question with the warning that the answer should show some knowledge of physics. At the end of five minutes, he had not written anything. I asked if he wished to give up, but he said no. He had many answers to this problem; he was just thinking of the best one. I excused myself for interrupting him and asked him to please go on. In the next minute he dashed off his answer which read, “Take the barometer to the top of the building and lean over the edge of the roof. Drop that barometer, timing its fall with a stopwatch. Then using the formula S = ½at², calculate the height of the building.”

At this point I asked my colleague if he would give up. He conceded, and I gave the student almost full credit.

In leaving my colleague’s office, I recalled that the student had said he had many other answers to the problem, so I asked him what they were. “Oh yes,” said the student. “There are a great many ways of getting the height of a tall building with a barometer. For example, you could take the barometer out on a sunny day and measure the height of the barometer and the length of its shadow, and the length of the shadow of the building and by the use of a simple proportion, determine the height of the building.”

“Fine,” I asked. “And the others?”

“Yes,” said the student.” There is a very basic measurement method that you will like. In this method you take the barometer and begin to walk up the stairs. As you climb the stairs, you mark off the length of the barometer along the wall. You then count the number of marks, and this will give you the height of the building in barometer units. A very direct method.”

“Of course, if you want a more sophisticated method, you can tie the barometer to the end of a string, swing it as a pendulum, and determine the value of ‘g’ at the street level and at the top of the building. From the difference of the two values of ‘g’ the height of the building can be calculated.”

Chapiter 3 : ability to find a surprising (rather) simple and elegant solution to a complex problem +  opposition to authority

Finally, he concluded, there are many other ways of solving the problem. “Probably the best,” he said, “is to take the barometer to the basement and knock on the superintendent’s door. When the superintendent answers, you speak to him as follows, ‘Mr. Superintendent, here I have a fine barometer. If you tell me the height of this building, I will give you this barometer.'”

At this point I asked the student if he really did know the conventional answer to this question. He admitted that he did, said that he was fed up with high school and college instructors trying to teach him how to think, using the “scientific method”


Facing a gifted individual means, under some circumstances, risking to be questioned in a very direct way with much humor (and even sometimes causticity). No surprise that some may want to get a revenge in any manner (whether it be a bad mark, or a punishment, a dismissal,  or even bullying or humiliation).

In the meanwhile, the gifted individual may have no idea of what is wrong in his/her behaviour. He/she just mentioned the many possible (and accurate) solutions, while advising about how upset he/she felt about a limited system which is a constraint and which should from his/her point of view, evolve.


Since the teacher had a certain sense of humor, the student graduated.

One thought on “What being gifted means (2) – The example of the barometer

  1. Merci pour cette histoire ! Je l’avais déjà lue/entendue, mais elle est ici très bien racontée.

    Ma préférée est sans conteste la dernière, qui m’a beaucoup fait rire ! 😀

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