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Curious Minds
Cover of Curious Minds
Curious Minds
How a Child Becomes a Scientist
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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 a volume of Einstein’s work, picked up as a diversion from heartbreak.
•Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a psychologist and the author of Flow, found his calling through Descartes.

Murray Gell-Mann, Nicholas Humphrey, Freeman Dyson . . . 27 scientists in all write about what it was that sent them on the path to their life's work. Illuminating memoir meets superb science writing in stories that invite us to consider what it is–and what it isn’t–that sets the scientific mind apart.
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 a volume of Einstein’s work, picked up as a diversion from heartbreak.
•Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a psychologist and the author of Flow, found his calling through Descartes.

Murray Gell-Mann, Nicholas Humphrey, Freeman Dyson . . . 27 scientists in all write about what it was that sent them on the path to their life's work. Illuminating memoir meets superb science writing in stories that invite us to consider what it is–and what it isn’t–that sets the scientific mind apart.
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Excerpts-
  • From the book 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...
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.www.edge.org
Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    July 19, 2004
    In this anthology of reminiscences by prominent scientists, the roll includes Richard Dawkins, Murray Gell-Mann, Joseph Ledoux and Ray Kurzweil, along with 23 others. The mandate of the book's editor, literary agent Brockman (The Third Culture
    ), to each of these authors was to write an essay explaining how he or she came to be a scientist. Some take him at his word and write meandering stories of childhood. David Buss found his calling—the study of human mating behavior—while working at a truck stop after dropping out of school. Paul Davies says he was born to be a theoretical physicist. Daniel Dennett, on the other hand, seems to have tried every other profession before landing, as if by accident, in science. A few writers let their essays get hijacked by the science they have devoted their lives to. And in the midst of this, like a keystone in an arch, is an essay by Steven Pinker explaining why the entire exercise is a bunch of hooey: scientifically speaking, he says, people have no objective idea what influenced their behavior, and that writing a memoir is creative storytelling, not objective observation of what actually happened. Whether or not these essays are scientifically sound is open to debate, but they do offer occasionally inspiring glimpses into the minds of today's scientific intelligentsia. Agent, Max Brockman.

  • Library Journal

    September 1, 2004
    Just what turns a child on to science? This is the determinant that editor and author Brockman (The Next Fifty Years) seeks to elicit in this collection of 27 essays. Notables like Robert Sapolsky, Steven Pinker, V.S. Ramachandran, and others from the worlds of mathematics, physics, psychology, biology, and anthropology present miniature autobiographies in which they describe the influences that led them into their present areas of expertise. Decisions to follow science did not arise as epiphanies but through serendipitous events, natural aptitudes, family encouragement, and intellectual arousal. Pinker ascribes "genes and chance" to explain why people go into science. From these diverse essays, readers can assemble their own recipe for what attracts scientists to their career specialties. An interesting overview for popular and academic science collections.--Rita Hoots, Woodland Coll., CA

    Copyright 2004 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Booklist

    September 15, 2004
    Twenty-seven scientists credit a satisfying suite of epiphanies, mentors, teachers, and books as reasons and inspiration for their career choices. Most remember their parents as being vital influences who enriched their childhoods with zoo and field trips and the like. And most contend that native intelligence is insufficient: mastering a subject is key. As crucial as hard work to becoming a scientist, however, is retaining one's impressionability. As one of Brockman's contributors remarks, "My childhood continues." With bylines from world-famous scientists such as Freeman Dyson and Murray Gell-Mann, these autobiographical stories will fully gratify the general science audience.(Reprinted with permission of Booklist, copyright 2004, American Library Association.)

  • The Washington Post Book World

    "Fascinating . . . An invigorating debate."

  • Psychology Today "And intriguing collection of essays . . . full of comical and thought-provoking stories."
  • Nature "Quirky, absorbing and persuasive in just the way that good stories are."
  • Sci Fi Magazine "In this superlative collection . . . scientists--who also happen to be splendid writers--discuss what first attracted them to careers in science. . . . Inspiring."
  • Science News "Revealing accounts and entertaining reading."
  • Discover "Compelling . . . rather than revealing a secret formula that produces an adult scientist, this collection proves just how disparate are the ingredients. . . . Idiosyncrasies are, in the end, what gives the collection its kick."
  • Popular Science "Forget algebra camp--a scientist's life can also begin with Gilligan's Island or the James Bond movie Thunderball . . . Entertaining stories."
  • New Scientist "[An] engrossing treat of a book . . . crammed with hugely enjoyable anecdotes."
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