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Science as Play

Pierre Laszlo

Play in scientific research is seldom discussed in print. Perhaps we scientists take it for granted. Or maybe we are a little self–conscious and try to hide it from others. After all, we don't want taxpayers to think they are subsidizing adults who are acting like a bunch of kids, thereby squandering hefty amounts of public money.

Over the night of May 8, 1994...Click to Enlarge Image

Play in science is thus an elusive and difficult topic. I chose to examine it because I know how fundamental it is from my experience as a practicing chemist and through the testimony of many colleagues. In charting this little–explored territory, I found that the extreme thesis—that science equals play—is untenable. I content myself with the more modest assertion that science has an element of play. Before relating some possible explanations, let me offer a few examples.

Sir Isaac's Fun and Games

The written recollections of Newton's half–niece include the following story. On January 29, 1697, Newton, then Warden of the Mint, came home after a hard day's work to find waiting for him a mathematical puzzle now known as the brachistochrone or roller–coaster problem. The challenge was to find the curve over which a mass rolling downhill under the influence of gravity will move between specified starting and finish points in the shortest time. Newton found the solution, the cycloid curve, before going to bed. He said it was "child's play," a phrase that suggests he took on the problem as much for amusement as anything else.

Similar entertainment (for both children and adults) comes from puzzles, in particular jigsaw puzzles, which present their players with two–dimensional fragments, each with a characteristic shape, from which to reconstruct an overall picture. Piecing together real–life jigsaw puzzles is part of what archaeologists do. They have to reconstitute, for instance, an ancient vase from the set of recovered shards, a task that requires a lot of guessing and testing. Guessing the solution of a scientific problem is typically much more involved. Yet it has many similarities with a jigsaw puzzle. When putting together a solution, the scientist inspects each piece for a possible fit with its neighbors and, bit by bit, constructs a whole argument.

Those most facile with jigsaw puzzles are able to divine what piece will fit even before trying it. Similarly, the best scientists are the ones who make the best guesses. That is, just having the ability to guess is not enough; one has to come up with the right answer—and before the competition does. One example of such a guessing game in science involved Dorothy Wrinch and Linus Pauling. Both were trying in the late 1930s and early '40s to guess the structure of proteins by building physical models of them. Pauling outguessed Wrinch. His theory, with alpha helices and beta sheets as the well–ordered structural modules, was correct. Her cyclol theory, which was based on rings, turned out to be wrong.

But scientists do not play only at outguessing one another; they also play with toys (as do engineers, a point made recently in these pages by Henry Petroski; see "Early Education," Engineering, May–June 2003). A fellow chemist, Joseph B. Lambert, who is a professor at Northwestern University, shed some light on the roots of this tendency in a letter he wrote to me a few years ago:

When I grew up, every kid put in some serious sandbox time, and it often involved building (what seemed like) complex sand structures around which fantasies were composed and competitions took place with neighborhood kids. The organic chemistry labs (at Yale during the junior year) were fun in the same way. We constructed molecules and competed with each other in the class on speed and yield. We mixed things up, and chemical transformations took place. We separated, we isolated, we analyzed. The odors were pleasant, and the physical process of working with our hands, as with sand, was satisfying. The biweekly organic labs became the high points of my week. By the end of the year, I knew that I wanted to be an organic chemist, as I realized one could play in the sandbox for a living.

Indeed, many scientists amuse themselves by tinkering with the various toys of their trade. They come up with ingenious devices to get a particular job done or divert a piece of commercial equipment from its original purpose for novel scientific uses. The apparatus that Robert Millikan and graduate student Harvey Fletcher cobbled together to measure the charge of the electron (involving, among other things, a perfume atomizer bought at the local drugstore) is a classic example of such inspired tinkering. A more recent one is found in the work of Salvador Moncada of the Wellcome Research Laboratories in England. He adapted a device intended for measuring vehicle emissions to studying the production of nitric oxide in biological tissues. As any experimentalist will testify, getting such things to work not only conserves grant money, it's also good fun.

Flying Down to Rio

People often like to pretend they are something they are not. Just consider the goings–on during Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro or Mardi Gras in New Orleans—temporary indulgences that only serve to call attention to the ordinary intolerance of such raucous behavior.

Whereas larger society keeps a lid on the carnival spirit, science encourages and nurtures the playful wearing of a mask and other forms of irreverence towards authority. Take the funny names chemists have given to various polycyclic hydrocarbons: propellane, paddlane, pagodane, twistane, windowpane, not to mention bastardane. Their labels for new ketones do not lag far behind, with penguinone and megaphone. Acids? Let me only mention moronic and traumatic acids. I could go on and on: Each class of organic molecules includes a few such tongue–in–cheek monikers. Similar fun is had in other fields of science, as for instance by physicists who have named a class of elementary particles quarks, of which charm is one of the flavors.

Why, what's the point of all this foolishness? The discoverers of a new particle and the makers of a new molecule are entitled to give it a name. Do they abuse their privilege by coming up with a funny one? Not really. Playful terms transfer the vernacular of the laboratory to the more formal written language of publications. In doing so, they gently flaunt seriousness and authority. They wittily show irreverence. They are the equivalent of the child who sticks out a tongue at someone in derisive defiance.

Hoaxes are another product of the playfulness of scientists. Consider a relatively recent example: the "Plate of Brasse," which states England's claim to California and was supposedly engraved by Sir Francis Drake's party during his visit in 1579. The plate was discovered in the 1930s. After it was declared genuine, it became the state's greatest historical document. But in 1977, Helen Michel and Frank Asaro, who were then both on the staff of the Nuclear Science Division of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, used neutron–activation analysis to re–examine the piece. They showed that the copper and zinc alloyed to make the brass were of higher purity than would have been available in the 16th century. Drake's plate was likely crafted, they concluded, between the second half of the 19th century and 1936, when it was first brought to light.

Last year historians at the University of California, Berkeley, announced that the artifact was devised as a practical joke, conceived by a group of friends of Herbert E. Bolton, who directed the Bancroft Library at Berkeley from 1920 to 1940. Bolton, it seems, was intrigued by tales of Drake having installed a plate to record his visit to California, so much so that he often urged his students to look for it. Some of Bolton's chums eventually decided to pull the professor's leg. But things went awry after Bolton went public and announced that the ersatz relic was authentic before the pranksters were able to warn him off.

Clearly, hoaxes can be dangerous it they get out of control. But most remain safely confined to the laboratory, where they sometime serve a healthy function, one best demonstrated with another example. Some years ago Nathan S. Lewis, a professor of chemistry at Caltech, and a graduate student were doing experiments in the laboratory of a senior colleague, Harry Gray. Another coworker—whom I'll just call Fred—had the habit of going through their data and rushing to Gray with his interpretation. Lewis decided to set  a trap for him. He recalls:

I manufactured an NMR spectrum that was a terrific result. We left it out as bait. [Fred] took it and wrote up a paper on how important this result was. He was ready to go right to [the Journal of the American Chemical Society]. He had taken hook, line, and sinker on the manufactured piece of data. We didn't let him mail it, but we let him gloat around for a couple of days. This stopped him temporarily from taking our data and interpreting it before making sure it was right.

Why Play?

Lewis clearly taught Fred a valuable lesson—the importance of personally ensuring the reliability of experimental data. But is the playfulness of scientists generally so helpful? Could it even be detrimental to the advancement of knowledge? This is a legitimate question. One might argue that practical jokes, at least in academia, are a waste of time. They divert resources into questionable actions, and to most outsiders they are not even funny. So why do it?

Perhaps play is an integral part of the human condition and spirit. If true, this explanation is still insufficient, it being too general. The psychologist's answer might be that scientists tend to play because science presents them with a surfeit of seriousness. Again, such an assertion is unsatisfactory. Many other professions have their dull and their anxious moments too.

There is another possibility: Scientists like to play because they are close to being children themselves. Some disciplines, mathematics especially, enjoy a reputation for the narrow window of creativity in youth. Moreover, much of science takes place in academic settings, where young people amass to receive education from a few professors. Thus, as this particular answer proposes, a youthful spirit comes to permeate the enterprise.

To me, this answer seems superficial. I prefer to believe that there is some cognitive value to the playful element in science. Playing with ideas is, after all, what science is about. It can be solitary amusement or it can be a collective game, as when physicists or mathematicians gather in front of a blackboard trying out new ideas. I can personally vouch for the games chemists are wont to play. When we set up encounters between various chemicals, our expectations extend those of the child who has been given a paint box and tries mixing various colors just to see what comes out. In the same mood, the chemist asks himself what would happen were he to change the proportions or modify the sequence of the operations in a complex synthesis. Such a playful, childlike attitude can be extremely fruitful. Let us not be too embarrassed to acknowledge that play is often what motivates us.

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