Awkward Little Einsteins

The other day in class we were discussing Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay Nature and someone asked a question about Emerson's argument that nature shapes the mind toward scientific skepticism. It's an odd point, but he posits that our realization that events take place at a physical distance or beyond our immediate awareness causes us to doubt that we possess a wholly reliable perspective on reality, which is a cornerstone of the scientific method.

By way of illustrating this, I asked the class if they had ever entertained the idea in childhood that they were perhaps the only Earthling in existence, and that every one they knew was really an alien in disguise carefully studying them. No doubt, these clever aliens transformed themselves back into their hideous shapes the moment you left the room. A half-dozen raised hands and grins of delight appeared in response to this question.

This is not an uncommon childhood speculation. It occurs when kids are just emerging from an ego-centric development stage. They become aware that there is a world beyond their experience, but--like little scientists--they ask themselves, "How can I be sure?" So in rushes this wonderful conjecture, a kind of proto-scientific myth. I am not sure how well my analogy cleared up Emerson's point. I probably didn't stitch it together very well, but it was a fun moment.

Emerson may have been onto something, too. I have often thought that kids think more abstractly than we imagine. There is a kind of naive genius in the way they explore the concepts of time, physics, matter and space. I have an uncle who once threw a shoe through a window on a stairway landing because--so he said--he wanted to see if the shoe would turn the corner and go down the stairs. I also recall once hearing a scientist interviewed on the radio. The host asked him how in the world he ever came to study subatomic particles. He said that as a kid he pestered his mom with questions: Why is the grass green instead of blue? Why don't things fall upward? He would get an answer and ask another why, and then another and another... Turns out, he said, if you keep asking why long enough, you end up at subatomic particles.

In my own experience, I remember having a long debate with a childhood friend about how the picture gets into a TV set. My theory was nonsense. I just assumed there were people in there. His was brilliant. He went over to the electrical outlet, unplugged the TV, and said, "Look, no picture." Then he plugged the set back in and said, "Picture. Obviously the picture comes in through the electrical outlet."

We were both wrong, of course, but he was better wrong than I was. Thus is science born.

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