Sunday, May 04, 2008

Dr. Seuss and Dr. Einstein

Some years ago, when an insect called the thrips -- singular and plural -- was in the news for defoliating sugar maples in New England, I noted in my Boston Globe science column that thrips are very strange beasts. Some species of thrips give birth to live young, some lay eggs, and at least one species of switch-hitting thrips has it both ways. Not even the wildest product of Dr. Seuss's imagination, I said -- the Moth-Watching Sneth, for example, a bird that's so big it scares people to death, or the Grickily Gractus, a bird that lays eggs on a cactus -- is stranger than creatures, such as the thrips, that actually exist.

As if to prove my point, a reader sent me a photograph of a real tropical bird that does indeed lay eggs on a cactus.

What about the Moth-Watching Sneth? Well, the extinct elephant bird of Madagascar stood eight feet tall and weighed a thousand pounds. In its heyday -- only a century or so ago -- the elephant bird, or Aepyornis, probably scared many a Madagascan half to death.

Pick any Seussian invention, and nature will equal it. In Dr. Seuss's McElligot's Pool there's a fish with a kangaroo pouch. Could there possibly be such a fish in the real world? Not a fish, maybe, but in South America there is an animal called the Yapok -- a wonderfully Seussian name -- that takes its young for a swim in a waterproof pouch.

Dr. Seuss was a botanist and zoologist of the first rank. Never mind that the flora and fauna he described were imaginary. Any kid headed for a career in science could do no better than to start with the plants and animals that populate the books of the madcap master of biology.

One thrips, two thrips, red thrips, blue thrips. The eggshell of an elephant bird, cut in half, would make a splendid salad bowl. Is it Seuss, or is it reality? You see, the boundary between the so-called "real" world and the world of the imagination begins to blur. And that is just as it should be if a child is to grow up with a proper attitude toward science.

Do black holes, those strange products of the astronomer's imagination, really exist? What about electrons, invisibly small, fidgeting in their atomic shells? How about the dervish dance of DNA as it unzips down the middle to reproduce itself? No one has ever seen these things, at least not directly. Like the Gractus and the Sneth, they are wonderful inventions of the imagination.

Of course, we are convinced that black holes, electrons, and unzipping DNA are real, because of the way those things connect with other things we know about the world and because certain experiments -- a myriad of exacting experiments -- turn out in certain ways. But it is important to remember that the world of science is a made-up world, a world of let's pretend, no less so than the strange flora and fauna of Dr. Seuss. The physicist Michael Faraday once said, "Nothing is too wonderful to be true." To be a good scientist, or to have a scientific attitude toward the world, one must be able to imagine wonderful things -- even things that seem too wonderful to be true.

Creative science depends crucially upon habits of mind that are most readily acquired by children: curiosity; voracious observation; sensitivity to rules and variations within the rules; and fantasy. Children's books that instill these habits of mind sustain science.

I am not talking about so-called "science books for children." I am not talking about "fact" books. I would argue that many science books written especially for children may actually diminish the very habits of mind that make for good science.

I used to occasionally review children's science books for a journal called Appraisal. Most of the offerings I was sent for review were packed full of useful information. What most of these books do not convey is the extraordinary adventure story of how the information was obtained, why we understand it to be true, or how it might embellish the landscape of the mind. For many children -- and adults, too -- science is information, a mass of facts. But facts are not science any more than a table is carpentry. Science is an attitude toward the world -- curious, skeptical, undogmatic, forward-looking. To be a scientist, or simply to share the scientific attitude, one must be like the kid in Dr. Seuss's On Beyond Zebra who refused to be limited by the fact of the alphabet: "In the places I go there are things that I see / That I never could spell if I stopped with the Z."

We live in an age of information. We are inundated by it. Too much information can swamp the boat of wonder, especially for a child. Which is why it is important that information be conveyed to children in a way that enhances the wonder of the world. For example, there are several fine information books for children about bats. But how much richer is that information when it is presented this way:

A bat is born
Naked and blind and pale.
His mother makes a pocket of her tail
And catches him. He clings to her long fur
By his thumbs and toes and teeth.
And then the mother dances through the night
Doubling and looping, soaring, somersaulting --
Her baby hangs on underneath.
There is every bit as much information in Randall Jarrell's The Bat-Poet as in the typical informational book. But, oh, what information!

If a child is led to believe that science is a bunch of facts, then science will not inform the child's life, nor will science enhance the child's cultural and imaginative landscape. By all means let's have books for kids that communicate what we know -- or think we know -- about the world; the more factual information we accumulate about the world, the more interesting the world becomes. But the scientific attitude -- ah, that's something else. There is no better time to communicate the scientific attitude than during childhood, and no better way than with quality children's books.

Consider these lines of Jarrell's The Bat-Poet:

The mother eats the moths and gnats she catches
In full flight; in full flight
The mother drinks the water of the pond
She skims across.
That wonderful line -- "In full flight; in full flight" -- conveys the single most important fact about bats: their extraordinary aviator skills. By repeating the phrase, Jarrell not only teaches us a bat fact but also helps us experience what it means to be a bat.

Curiosity, voracious seeing, sensitivity to rules and variations within the rules, and fantasy. These are habits of mind crucial for science that are best learned during childhood. Let us consider them one by one.

Curiosity

Albert Einstein wrote: "The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science." At first, this might seem a strange thought as it applies to science. We are frequently asked to believe that science takes mystery out of the world. Nothing could be further from the truth. Mystery invites curiosity. Unless we perceive the world as mysterious, we shall never be curious about what makes the world tick.

My favorite books about curiosity are the children's books of Maurice Sendak, precisely because of their successful evocation of mystery. Sendak's illustrations convey the spooky sense of entwined order and chaos, good and menace that we find in nature. In In the Night Kitchen Mickey hears a thump in the night. Down he falls, out of his pajamas, into the curious world of the night kitchen. The night kitchen is full of familiar things -- the city skyline in the background consists of boxes and cans from the pantry -- yet nothing is quite the same as in the daylight world. Mickey takes charge. He molds; he shapes; he rearranges. He contrives clothes from bread dough, and a dough airplane, too. He takes a dip in a bottle of milk. The night kitchen is the awake world turned topsy-turvy.

Mickey's adventure is a dream, of course, but so what? The American social philosopher Lewis Mumford said: "If man had not encountered dragons and hippogriffs in dreams, he might never have conceived of the atom." It is an extraordinary thought, that science depends upon the dreaming mind. The dreamer, says Mumford, puts things together in ways never experienced in the awake world -- joining the head, wings, and claws of a bird with the hind quarters of a horse -- to make something fabulous and new: a hippogriff. In the dream world, space and time dissolve; near and far, past and future, familiar and monstrous merge in novel ways. In science, too, we invent unseen worlds by combining familiar things in an unfamiliar fashion. We imagine atoms, for example, as combining characteristics of billiard balls, musical instruments, and water waves, all on a scale that is invisibly small. According to Mumford, dreams taught us how to imagine the unseen world.

In science we talk about "dreaming up" theories, and we move from the dreamed-up worlds of the night kitchen, Middle-Earth, Narnia, and Oz to dreamed-up worlds that challenge the adult imagination. An asteroid hurtles out of space and lays waste a monster race of reptiles that has ruled the earth for two hundred million years. A black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy swallows ten million stars. A universe begins in a blinding flash from a pinprick of infinite energy. How did we learn to imagine such things? Mumford believed that dreams released human imagination from bondage to the immediate environment and to the present moment. He imagined early humans pestered and tantalized by dreams, sometimes confusing the images of darkness and sleep with those of waking life, subject to misleading hallucinations, disordered memories, unaccountable impulses, but also animated now and then by images of joyous possibility. These are exactly the characteristics I admire in Sendak's works. As long as children are reading such books, I have no fear for curiosity.

Voracious observation

I love books that stretch a child's powers of observation. Graeme Base's Animalia. The books of Kit Williams. Richly textured books. Books hiding secrets. Of these, my favorites are the books in Mitsumasa Anno's Journey series -- Bayeux tapestries that hide a hundred observational surprises. The more you look, the more you see, ad infinitum. Texture is everything.

The texture of a book can be too simple, or too complex. It can be uninteresting, or hopelessly cluttered. The nineteenth-century physicist James Clerk Maxwell said: "It is a universal condition of the enjoyable that the mind must believe in the existence of a discoverable law, yet have a mystery to move in." Anno's books have a rich textural complexity, but they are structured by discoverable law. As often as I have perused these books, with children and alone, I have found new elements of law, subtly hidden, shaping the whole. With such books the child practices the very qualities of mind that led Maxwell to the laws of electromagnetism.

Rules and variations within the rules

If there is one thing that defines science, this is it. The Greeks called it the problem of the One and the Many. They observed that the world is capable of infinite variation yet somehow remains the same. And that's what science is -- the discovery of things that stay the same in the midst of variation.

The human mind rebels from too much constancy and from too much chaos, preferring instead a balance of sameness and novelty. Endless variation within a simple set of rules is the recipe for the perfect game: patty-cake, ring-around-the-rosy, blackjack, chess, science. We learn this first in the nursery, with the rhyme on mother's or father's knee:

Jack and Jill
Went up the hill,
To fetch a pail of water;
Jack fell down,
And broke his crown
And Jill came tumbling after.
Then up Jack got,
And home did trot,
As fast as he could caper;
To old Dame Dob,
Who patched his nob
With vinegar and brown paper.
The nursery song initiates the child into a kind of playful activity for which science is the natural culmination. Rhyme is a special activity marked off from ordinary experience by the parent's lap and the book. Presumably, the infant recognizes rhyme as a special use of language. The language of the rhyme is more highly structured than ordinary discourse, by rhyme, rhythm, and alliteration. In a chaos of-unarticulated sound and dimly perceived meanings, the nursery song evokes a feeling of recognition and order. "Ah, this is familiar," is the emotion the child must feel. "This makes sense." The semantic aspect of the song is not the important thing. The rhyme creates order. Its perfection is limited and temporary, but it is enough to provide security and pleasure. The order of the rhyme is an end in itself, and the child will be quick to set even a minor deviation straight with, "That's not the way it goes." We do not begin to understand why the human mind responds this way, but in the nursery rhyme we are touching upon a quality of mind that drives science.

Tension between rules and the breaking of rules is a common theme of children's books. Chris Van Allsburg's award-winning JUMANJI tells the story of a board game that two children find in the park. The game has three simple rules regarding the game pieces, rolling the dice to move through the jungle to the Golden City, and the object of the game. And a final rule: once the game is started, it will not be over until one player reaches the Golden City. And now comes the fun -- and terror -- as the children find themselves swept along by the rules of the game. Is it a dream? Is it life?

A side effect of those children's science books which stress factual information is a conviction on the part of the child that science is all rules, all order, all comprehensibility. Nothing could be further from the truth. The rules of science exist within a matrix of ignorance. The chaos and incomprehensibility of the natural world is not exhausted by science. As Thomas Huxley said, the point of science is to reduce the fundamentally incomprehensible things in nature to the smallest possible number. We haven't the foggiest notion what things such as electric charge, or gravity, or space, or time are. These are fundamentally incomprehensible. Why they exist we haven't a clue. We are content if we can describe a multitude of other things in terms of these fundamental incomprehensibilities. Science is an activity that takes place on the shore of an infinite sea of mystery.

Fantasy

The physicist Bruce Lindsay defined science this way: "Science is a game in which we pretend that things are not wholly what they seem in order that we may make sense out of them in terms of mental processes peculiar to us as human beings...Science strives to understand by the construction of theories, which are imaginative pictures of things as they might be, and, if they were, they would lead logically to that which we find in actual experience." In other words, a scientific theory is a kind of fantasy that is required to match the world in a particularly strict sort of way. We have ample testimony from great scientists of the importance of fantasy to creative scientific thought. Einstein said: "When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than any talent for abstract, positive thinking."

In the nineteenth century, educators often opposed encouraging a child's gift for fantasy. Knowledge imparted to children by Victorians was required to be "useful," as opposed to "frivolous." Victorian children who wanted to read romances, or fairy tales, had to do so by candlelight in the night closet or in the privacy of the park. What a sad, sad notion of what it means to grow up! I would more quickly welcome into my science classes the child who has traveled in Middle-Earth and Narnia than the child who stayed home and read nothing but "useful" information. The eminent essayist Lewis Thomas said of childhood: "It is the time when the human brain can set to work on language, on taste, on poetry and music, with centers at its disposal that may not be available later on in life. If we did not have childhood, and were able to somehow jump catlike from infancy to adulthood, I doubt very much that we would turn out human." And, he might have added, we would certainly not turn out to be scientists.

Let's not be too overly concerned about providing science facts to children. A child absorbs quite enough science facts from school and television, from computers and the other rich technologies at the child's disposal. If we want to raise children who will grow up to understand science, who will be citizens who are curious, skeptical, undogmatic, imaginative, optimistic, and forward-looking, then let's turn the Victorian rule on its head and put into the hands of children books that feed imagination and fantasy. There is no better time to acquire scientific habits of mind, and no better instigator than quality children's books.

In my Boston Globe science column, I had occasion over the years to make reference to Dr. Seuss, Antoine de Saint Exupery's The Little Prince, Lewis Carroll's Alice books, Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows, Felix Salten's Bambi, and other children's books. In writing about science I have made reference to children's books more frequently than to adult literary works. This is not an accident. In children's books we are at the roots of science -- pure, childlike curiosity, eyes open with wonder to the fresh and new, and powers of invention still unfettered by convention and expectation.

Further Reading

This essay from the September-October 1992 issue of Horn Book is posted here with their permission, and has been edited slightly.. The essay was adapted from a talk delivered at Bridgewater State College in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, on March 25,1992.

Discuss this essay and more over on the Science Musings Blog.