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Science as Play

Pierre Laszlo

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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