Practising science

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Posted by: stak
Posted on: 2010-11-19 11:48:51

Not too long ago I read Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!, the pseudo-autobiography of Richard Feynman (Nobel-winning physicist). I say "pseudo" because really it's a bunch of pretty entertaining anecdotes from his life in more-or-less chronological order. I highly recommend everybody read it, not only because it's entertaining but also sneakily thought-provoking.

One of the things it made me think about was how many famous scientists (and famous people in general) started off at a very early age. In the book, Feynman recounts how he did experiments to satisfy his curiosity as a kid - you can find similar stories in the lives of many famous people. I think this is generally true because it takes a lot of practice to build up the skills and intuition it takes to be really good at something, and people who start early and love what they do tend to get that practice, while others don't.

Anyway, one of the things that struck me was that how while I also get curious about random things, I usually end up going to Wikipedia or such to find the answer rather than doing experiments to figure out the answer myself, like Feynman did. And that's probably true for a lot of people. That makes me wonder - how many children growing up now are going to be worse off with respect to experimentation and deduction skills? In order to practise experimenting when you're young, you need to have intriguing but simple problems - if the problem is not intriguing enough then there's no motivation, and if the problem is too hard then the experiment is unlikely to be successful. And I think that in that class of problems, a vast majority of the answers are in easy reach on the web. So budding scientists might end being deprived of a certain amount of practice when it comes to these things.

Now there's definitely counterexamples to this - every now and then there are stories about high school kids building nuclear reactors which shows that scientific creativity and experimentation in kids isn't dead yet. And if you look at the pattern, it seems like these outlier kids are tackling harder classes of problems than they used to. Building a fusion reactor in a garage isn't trivial, and certainly would have been impossible even 20 years ago.

As I see it, the main thing that is allowing these kids to work on harder problems is how technology is becoming more accessible to individuals. For the fusion reactor, all the parts needed were found on "eBay and the hardware store". These days you can buy all sorts of interesting stuff online and do who-knows-what with them.

However, I'm not sure if it's enough. Tackling harder problems also requires knowing more. While it's true that higher levels of education are being pushed down to younger kids, I wonder if at some point we'll reach a threshold where it's simply not possible to learn and acquire everything you need in order to perform meaningful experimentation and practise those skills. I guess time will tell.

Posted by be_unafraid at 2010-11-19 12:32:07
I've been thinking about just that lately: what does it take for kids to figure out that they can do independent experimentation to satisfy their curiosity and to realize that they don't have to take an adult's - or an encyclopedia's - word on how the world works. There are lots of ready-made packaged experiments for them to do nowadays, but those just don't do the trick: the question and the answer are presented side by side, too fast, and without the child actually having asked that specific question.
By the way, "Uncle Tungsten" by Oliver Sacks - I don't know if you have read it - is a wonderful book about Oliver's experiments in chemistry back when he was a child. A hands-on approach to studying the history of science, it was. :)
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Posted by stak at 2010-11-19 15:21:16
I agree on the ready-made packaged experiments. They don't actually allow kids' curiosity to drive their experimentation; if anything, they serve as a substitute for curiosity.
And that book sounds interesting, I'll add it to my reading list. :)
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Posted by stak at 2010-11-22 09:41:47
I recently listened to part of the "Outliers" (Malcolm Gladwell) audiobook and it was pretty interesting and relevant to this. From what I heard Gladwell's argument is that you need 10,000 hours of practice at something before you are really good at it, and that innate talent doesn't exist. The book, like all of Gladwell's stuff, is pseudo-science - but still pretty interesting to think about.
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