Curious Minds: How a Child Becomes a Scientist|
by John Brockman
Post Your Opinion
|A Review of: Curious Minds: How a Child Becomes a Scientist
by Barbara Julian
Curious Minds left me with the conviction that scientists are the
most interesting people in the world, which is just the conviction
its editor must have begun with. The 27 contributors whose backgrounds
John Brockman asks about are not just scientists-they are also
philosophers, activists, humourists, wunderkinds and prima donnas,
and even if you are a humanities sort of person you will find their
minds uncommonly curious in both senses of the word.
The contributors were asked "what inspired them to choose their
paths" in science. Some write about family, while others talk
about their university years; some describe their favourite books,
but most are at their best when writing about science itself. Science
makes poets of them all and they in turn make science captivating.
Astronomer Janna Levin remembers as a child "swelling with a
feeling like ecstasy at the thought of our pretty blue planet
spinning tamely in a sea of blackness in a cosmos magnificent and
huge." Biologist Lynn Margulis begins by describing her childhood
but is soon off on an excited diatribe about bacteria. She explains
how the organelles inside our own cells actually evolved from
primitive bacteria, so that "each of us is a colossus of
nanobeasts, a coordinated bestiary," as amazing as the fantasy
creatures in fairy tales.
All the writers in this collection are inspired wordsmiths able to
charm the lay reader. Cosmologist Paul Davies describes his childhood
sense of a "hidden meaning in the universe." He had puzzled
over atoms and free will and he humourously describes his attempts
to have "meaningful chats with the clergy" in his church
youth group. As those talks always "tended to focus on sex and
why it wasn't a good idea," Davies (not entirely typically
perhaps) turned for answers to physics and math. Through math he
accessed "an occult world" of forces, fields and subatomic
particles, a "deeper level of reality which somehow came closer
to the soul, (where) nature itself was speaking to [him] in code."
Mathematics was the catalyst for many of these scientists. For
others it was a childhood infatuation with animals. One of the
math-inspired contributors is Freeman Dyson, a professor with
multiple degrees, and a popular interpreter of matters scientific.
He started early. He was bored as a toddler in his crib "so
[he] discovered infinite series" by counting (adding 1 + _ +
_ + 1/8 . forever, you end up with 2). That was just the beginning:
as a graduate student at Cornell he had the job of explaining the
thought of quantum physics genius Richard Feynman to the world.
"My papers were best sellers," he declares (really?!),
and since then he has elucidated science wherever "a tablespoon
of elegant mathematics could make a big difference."
Physicist Murray Gell-Mann was another child prodigy. At 19 he had
a Bachelor's degree in Physics but was crushed when turned down for
graduate school by the three big "Ivy League" universities,
leaving only MIT open. He recounts, "I thought of killing
myself but soon decided I could always try MIT and kill myself later
but that I couldn't kill myself and then try MIT." Of course
MIT worked out spectacularly although Gell-Mann was late finishing
his PhD because "[He] spent a lot of time reading things like
the Tibetan Book of the Dead." At 21 he was "late",
but already a polymath.
Not all were child prodigies. Neurobiologist/primatologist Robert
Sapolsky believes that his formative influence was the professor
on the TV show Gilligan's Island. Here was the classic idyllic
island and a professor who knew everything, and Sapolsky became a
professor who studies apes in their (originally) idyllic kingdoms.
Animals themselves were his teachers and his inspiration; as a child
he wanted not only to live with mountain gorillas, but to be one.
"Primates grabbed me in a way that still makes me ache when I
see them." Supercharged with motivation, he wanted no less
than to "save primates from extinction" and "find a
cure for cancer" and "bring about world peace."
Biologist Richard Dawkins was also inspired originally by a mentor
from popular culture-Dr. Doolittle. The doctor could talk to animals
because he listened to them, watched them and learned from them.
When Dawkins later discovered his professional mentor, Charles
Darwin, he was struck by the resemblance between the fictional and
the real character: both "scribbled descriptions in notebook
after notebook of amazing discoveries in exotic foreign parts,"
and Darwin knew, like Dr. Doolittle's creator, that nature is as
amazing and miraculous as anything in fantasy literature.
In their own way, all of the writers in this collection convey this
same notion. Janna Levin speaks of "insects worth listening
to," Lynn Margulis communes with bacteria, and Mary Catherine
Bateson speaks of the "challenge of empathy" with hidden
and fragile biological systems, not only the "glamour
species". Robert Sapolsky wanted to believe that apes "had
secretly evolved language and religion," and I suspect he
secretly believes it still.
Harvard psychology professor Marc Hausser puts scientists into four
categories-theoreticians, synthesizers, empiricists, and popularizers-and
argues for the necessity of all four. He himself studies mind,
language and morality, which involves brain physiology and evolution.
There must be "intellectual promiscuity" and cross-fertilization
between disciplines, he insists.
Sapolsky as primatologist, endocrinologist and sociobiologist is
another synthesizer, who sees this nuanced multidisciplinary thinking
as essential to science's role as a "weapon against antiprogressive
forces in society, right-wing yahoos, (and) religious intolerance."
It is certainly comforting to know that there are universities and
learned societies full of committed passionate scientific thinkers,
and to know that their ideas are accessible to interested lay
John Brockman performs a great service in bringing us this curious
literature of cutting-edge science. Since there are hundreds of
thousands of other scientists out there, I hope there will be many
sequels to this fascinating volume.