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
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. (Sept. 1) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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August 30, 2004
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Excerpt from Curious Minds by John Brockman
A Family Affair
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.