Curious Minds: How a Child Becomes a Scientist

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9780375422911: Curious Minds: How a Child Becomes a Scientist
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A fascinating collection of essays from twenty-seven of the world’s most interesting scientists about the moments and events in their childhoods that set them on the paths that would define their lives.

What makes a child decide to become a scientist?

·For Robert Sapolsky—Stanford professor of biology—it was an argument with a rabbi over a passage in the Bible.
·Physicist Lee Smolin traces his inspiration to the volume of Einstein’s work he picked up as a diversion from heartbreak.
·Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a psychologist and the author of Flow, found his calling through Descartes.
·Mary Catherine Bateson—author of Composing a Life—discovered that she wanted to be an anthropologist while studying Hebrew.
·Janna Levin—author of How the Universe Got Its Spots—felt impelled by the work of Carl Sagan to know more.

Murray Gell-Mann, Nicholas Humphrey, Freeman Dyson, Daniel C. Dennett, Lynn Margulis, V. S. Ramachandran, Howard Gardner, Richard Dawkins, and more than a dozen others tell their own entertaining and often inspiring stories of the deciding moment. Illuminating memoir meets superb science writing in essays that invite us to consider what it is—and isn’t—that sets the scientific mind apart and into action.

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About the Author:

John Brockman, editor of many books, including The Next Fifty Years, is also the author of By the Late John Brockman, The Third Culture, and Digerati: Encounters with the Cyber Elite. He is the founder and CEO of Brockman Inc., a literary and software agency, and the publisher and editor of the Web site Edge. He lives in New York City.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

A Family Affair

NICHOLAS HUMPHREY

Nicholas Humphrey, School Professor at the London School of Economics and professor of psychology at the New School for Social Research, is a theoretical psychologist, internationally known for his work on the evolution of human intelligence and consciousness. His books include Consciousness Regained, The Inner Eye, A History of the Mind, Leaps of Faith, and The Mind Made Flesh.

On Boxing Day 1960, soon after breakfast, Gower Street in London was deserted. I and my grandfather, A. V. Hill, entered the anatomy department of University College through a side door and made our way stealthily upstairs to his laboratory. The atmosphere was morguelike, and a musty smell of formaldehyde hung in the air. Water dripped from the lab ceiling and splashed onto an umbrella raised over the bench. A clock ticked, oddly out of tempo with the dripping; otherwise there was an eerie stillness. Grandpa removed the lid from a basin filled with live frogs, picked one out, and eyed its strong thigh muscles. He put it aside in a glass jar and called me over to admire it. The dissecting instruments and pins were waiting beside the corkboard.

I was seventeen years old. I had been reading Hermann Hesse's novel Steppenwolf, and I thought of the Magic Theater, with the strange sign on its door: "Not for Everybody." I felt (not for the first time) that I had crossed a threshold into a place from which ordinary people were excluded. But in the novel the theater's door bore another sign beneath the first: "For Madmen Only." I was proud to be where I was, and in this company, but I was wary, too.

My grandfather had in fact chosen this day to go to work, when most normal people were still in bed sleeping off their Christmas dinners, for the sanest of reasons. Following on from the research for which he had won the 1922 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, he was now, at age seventy-five, conducting what he would later call his "last experiments in muscle mechanics." He had recently developed a much improved moving-coil galvanometer to measure the heat output during muscular contraction, but his new instrument was so sensitive to vibration that every car passing in the street outside, every footstep on the landing, created a false reading. So a day like this, which belonged only to him and me, was the ideal time to make a perfect measurement.

He could have done the experiment alone. But science for my grandfather was nothing if not a family affair, and he had long been in the habit of engaging his children and grandchildren as his assistants. This is his account of how he prepared for the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures in 1926:

Of the suggestions for my Lectures, the best came from Janet, aged eight, who proposed that I should make experiments upon her.... The more I thought about it, the better it seemed. Fearful experiments I would make on all my children: Polly's heart should be shown beating; and her emotions should be exposed on a screen. David should be given electric shocks till sparks came out of his hands.... Janet should have the movements of her stomach (there is no decency in young ladies these days) shown to the audience on a screen. Then the noises made by Maurice's heart should be made to resound like a gun all round the lecture hall...and he would not be content till I had promised that he also should have electric shocks.

Now, a generation later, he had called on me to help him, as part of the tradition. Research assistant or sorcerer's apprentice? A bit of both.

At lunchtime we ate the cheese and cider that were Grandpa's standard fare. The cider, pale and dry, came from a press in the village of Ivybridge in Devon, where for many years he had owned a country house on the edge of Dartmoor. Prompted by the Devon associations and the intimacy of the occasion, he told me the story of how he had been able to date precisely the day he first set foot on the moor. He and his mother had been staying for the holidays on a farm nearby. Borrowing a gun from the farmer, he had gone out to shoot rabbits. Around midday, to his complete surprise, he saw a solar eclipse developing, with the sun beginning to be swallowed by the shadow of the moon. He took the glass from his pocket watch and smeared it with the blood of a rabbit he had just killed, so that he could watch the phenomenon in safety. Many years later he verified the date in an astronomical almanac: May 28, 1900, 2:30 p.m.

Grandpa never had much time for metaphysics ("the art of bamboozling people--methodically," he once told me). But on that morning he and I were developing an unusual bond, and now he let himself talk of things he would not normally have shared. There was a lesson in the story of the rabbit's blood and the eclipse. The sun, moon, and stars have one kind of destiny. Their times and courses are fixed by well-known laws. Newton could have predicted hundreds of years earlier exactly what would be seen at that place and time. But rabbits and boys--yes, and frogs, too--have another kind of destiny. It seems that we know neither the day nor the hour wherein fateful things will happen. What laws, if any, apply to human behavior?

Pavlov, whom Grandpa had counted as a friend and had several times visited in Leningrad, believed that there would one day be a science of the mind similar in rigor to the sciences of physics and chemistry. For that matter, so did Sigmund Freud, to whom my grandfather played host when Freud was made a Foreign Member of the Royal Society in 1938 and with whom he had got on surprisingly well. But what contrasting notions those two had of what science is! Grandpa had given me, some years earlier, a framed text of Pavlov's "Bequest to the Academic Youth of Russia"--or, as it became known, Pavlov’s Last Testament--written just before his death in 1936 at the age of eighty-seven. This is the passage he marked out for me:

Never attempt to screen an insufficiency of knowledge even by the most audacious surmise and hypothesis. Howsoever this soap bubble will rejoice your eyes by its play, it inevitably will burst and you will have nothing except shame.... Perfect as is the wing of a bird, it never could raise the bird up without resting on air. Facts are the air of a scientist. Without them you never can fly. Without them your "theories" are vain efforts.

Grandpa loved that image of the soap bubble. Just right, or so he thought, for describing Freudian theory. Later that day, when we returned to his study, he pulled out an essay written in 1925 by his brother-in-law, John Maynard Keynes:

I venture to say that at the present stage the argument in favour of Freudian theories would be very little weakened if it were admitted that every case published hitherto had been wholly invented by Professor Freud in order to illustrate his ideas and to make them more vivid to the minds of his readers. That is to say, the case for considering them seriously mainly depends at present on the appeal which they make to our own intuitions as containing something new and true about the way in which human psychology works, and very little indeed upon the so-called inductive verifications, so far as the latter have been published up to date.... [Freud] deserves exceptionally serious and entirely unpartisan consideration, if only because he does seem to present himself to us, whether we like him or not, as one of the great disturbing, innovating geniuses of our age, that is to say as a sort of devil.
Huh! Didn't that put Freud nicely in his place!

I listened and watched and took things in. I moistened the frog’s muscle with Ringer solution. I had just left school, and the plan was for me to go to Cambridge the following October, with a scholarship to read math and physics. I knew next to nothing about biology. But my grandfather had other ideas for me. He himself had started out as a mathematician, only later to discover the world of biophysics. Now, he implied, the next real challenge lay in the behavioral sciences. A few weeks later, he arranged for me to spend six months at the Marine Biological Laboratory at Plymouth as a lab assistant to his protégé, Eric Denton, where I could learn--at any rate, begin to learn--about life.

And so I went, and so I did.
The poet W. H. Auden wrote: "When I find myself in the company of scientists, I feel like a shabby curate who has strayed by mistake into a room full of dukes." Possibly none of us except a duke can know what it feels like to be born to be a duke. Quite special, I imagine: One would have a sense of intrinsic superiority, of rights of access and freedoms from restraint not allowed to ordinary people. But I do know as well as anybody what it feels like to be born into a dynasty of scientists. Quite special, I can confirm, and somewhat the same.

A. V. Hill, my mother's father, was a scientist in the grand mold: Nobel laureate, member of Parliament for Cambridge and Oxford Universities in the Churchill war administration, champion of intellectual freedoms and responsibility around the world. He played a crucial part in arranging the flight of Jewish scientists from Hitler in the years before the war. Throughout my childhood, at my grandparents’ house in Highgate, there were always visitors with heavy mid-European accents and twinkling smiles, in excited discussion of new discoveries--who would receive, as the years passed, Nobel Prizes of their own.

My great-uncle Maynard Keynes died when I was two, but his intellectual presence hung over our family, and his wife, the Russian ballerina Lydia Lopokova, with all her Bloomsbury connections, lived on as a spritely babushka. Maynard's brother, Geoffrey, was a surgeon and medical historian; his wife, Margaret, was a granddaughter of Charles Darwin.

My mother, Janet (she of the moving stomach), became a doctor and later a psychoanalyst who worked with Anna Freud. Of her brothers and sisters, Maurice (of...

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