Curious Minds: How a Child Becomes a Scientist

by John Brockman
ISBN: 0375422919

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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 readers. 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.

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