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Born to Hypothesize?

Peter Pesic

Curious Minds: How a Child Becomes a Scientist. Edited by John Brockman. xii + 236 pp. Pantheon Books, 2004. $23.95.

What leads some children to become scientists? John Brockman, author, editor, literary agent and publisher, asked 27 prominent scientists what happened to them as children that might have led to their various careers. He invited his subjects to reflect on their parents, mentors, influences, epiphanies, mistakes and conflicts, seeking to elicit not only what called them to science in general but what led them to the specific path each took. The resulting book, Curious Minds, does not claim to be anything more than anecdotal, but there is a lot to be said for vivid stories.

Much depends on which scientists are chosen. Brockman has assembled an interesting group, each identified by a short biography and speaking in the first person. A few respond to one another, but most just tell their own story. A preponderance (at least 10) of the contributors are psychologists, cognitive scientists or neuroscientists; the group also includes five physicists, three computer scientists, two anthropologists, two biologists, a philosopher, a sociologist, a mathematician, an economist and an evolutionist. But such categorizations fall short: Several are polymaths or work in emerging fields (such as complexity studies). Then too, many of them are innovators who have gone past disciplinary boundaries to follow new insight.

Brockman gives no particular rationale for his choices. Presumably, he tried to find interesting characters who would respond memorably; all but four of them have written popular works about science. And indeed, their engaging and varied stories make enjoyable reading.

No simple answer emerges to our opening question. Many of the respondents speak about their childhood, of course. A few came from homes steeped in science, with scientific parents. More had parents who admired science from a distance, leaving their children to encounter it for themselves. But parents are not everything; Steven Pinker considers that their greatest influence on their children may be at the moment of conception. Our genes then prepare the minds with which we meet those chance encounters we later dignify as watersheds. Pinker takes delight in skewering the Orwellian action of memory, which is "constantly rewriting the past to conform to present exigencies." Still, he has childhood stories to tell. Like some of the other contributors, he was influenced by his encounter with the complexities of Hebrew grammar, which awakened a feeling for deep structures.

The physicist and popular writer Paul Davies wanted to find the secrets of the universe. But Freeman Dyson (who began as a mathematician) just liked to calculate things—never mind the deep questions. Mathematicians sometimes speak of their calling as an art, not a science, because mathematics is not finally answerable to the world of experience. I found myself wishing to hear more from this side.

The inclusion of so many psychologists may reflect an understandable desire to emphasize the human side of science and the psychology of science, as part of the common stream of human feelings. Consider the finding of the psychologist Anne Roe in the 1950s that in childhood scientists seem to suffer more episodes of illness and trauma than the general population. The psychologist Howard Gardner remembers the shadow of the Shoah falling over Scranton, his hometown. Jaron Lanier, who coined the term "virtual reality," remembers his family's move to a harsh and obscure corner of the Southwest, followed by his mother's early death and a year he spent in a hospital recovering from illness, a time during which he says he was barely aware of his surroundings. The developmental psychologist Judith Rich Harris remembers her father's struggle with autoimmune disease, which later became her own. But most of the contributors either had no such harrowing experiences or chose not to tell of them.

Generally, these narratives are set in a major key—they tend to be upbeat and rather comical. For the most part, what they depict is less a pilgrim's progress through adversity than a love story become sweet obsession. Several of the contributors interweave memories of first love with the story of the growth of their romance with science. But most memorable are the personal details that capture the odd vividness of life. The psychologist Mihaly -Csikszentmihalyi tells of inventing childhood experiments to prove a friend wrong; in time, his own child conducted strangely similar experiments to prove him wrong. Steven Strogatz burst into tears when he realized that he wanted to learn quantum mechanics, not follow his parents' advice to study medicine. The physicist Murray Gell-Mann thought of killing himself (at age 18) because he had to do graduate work at MIT, "which seemed so grubby compared with the Ivy League." Then he decided that, after all, he could always kill himself later if MIT were that bad, but he couldn't commit suicide and then try MIT. Such moments must be savored.—Peter Pesic, St. John's College, Santa Fe

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