Born to Hypothesize?
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
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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