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Science as Play

Pierre Laszlo

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.

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