Friday, October 01, 2004


The Genesis of Genius

The hardy seeds of scientific passion can take root almost anywhere      

By Jennifer Kahn

Curious Minds: How a Child Becomes a Scientist
Curious Minds: How a Child Becomes a Scientist

Edited by John Brockman

Pantheon Books, $23.95

Courtesy of Sherry Turkle

Ethnographer Sherry Turkle imagined herself at age 8 as a roller-skating Nancy Drew.

As a toddler, future physicist Freeman Dyson spent his afternoon nap time playing with numbers instead of sleeping. “I added one plus a half plus a quarter plus an 

eighth plus a sixteenth and so on, and I discovered that if you go on adding like this forever you end up with two,” he recalls. “I had discovered infinite series.”

Dyson’s precocious feat may seem like a fairly typical beginning for a brilliant thinker. Yet few of the 27 scientists whose autobiographies appear in Curious Minds repeat Dyson’s tale—which is what makes the collection so compelling. Indeed, rather than revealing a secret formula that produces an adult scientist, this collection proves just how disparate are the ingredients. Scientific passion can percolate among early and late bloomers, the privileged and the poor, social misfits and stars.

Editor John Brockman’s “unruly bunch” of essayists includes Mary Catherine Bateson, an anthropologist who as a child took notes on her playmates; Richard Dawkins, a zoologist who learned about

Courtesy of Marc Hauser

Marc Hauser began observing animal behavior at age 1.

“species-ism” from The Adventures of Dr. Dolittle; and darker personalities like Jaron Lanier, a computer scientist whose early obession with virtual reality drove him to build a haunted house out of his own electronic contraptions. One of the most eloquent narratives belongs to psychologist Nicholas Humphrey, whose grandfather, a Nobel laureate, entertained him by dissecting a sheep’s eye. “I grew up feeling that I carried a similar warrant to explore anything I chose,” Humphrey writes. “[A] kind of ancestral droit de seigneur.” Presented as a boy with a copy of Ivan Pavlov’s Last Testament, Humphrey cites a passage in which Pavlov advises scientists not to be dazzled by wishful theories: “Perfect as is the wing of a bird, it never could raise the bird up without resting on air. Facts are the air of a scientist. Without them you can never fly.”

Courtesy of Steven Pinker

Psychologist Steven Pinker (on a high school quiz team, bottom row second from left) discovered linguistics in grad school.

Such idiosyncrasies are, in the end, what gives the collection its kick. So while Dyson recounts the 1927 eclipse of the sun (he was 3 1/2), neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux describes a career that began with an apprenticeship cutting meat in his father’s butcher shop. Nor are all the authors convinced by the book’s subtitle. More than one account begins with a muttering disclaimer about the unreliability of childhood memories, and psychologist Steven Pinker goes much further, using his essay to debunk the idea that specific events set one on an unwavering path toward science. “Rather than childhood experiences causing us to be who we are,” he asserts, “who we are causes our childhood experiences.” Take that, memoirists.


The Quest for Consciousness: A Neurobiological Approach

 By Christof Koch; Roberts & Company, $45

How does the smell of a rain-soaked dog or the sight of a jungle scene evoke a conscious feeling? In this highly readable college-level text, Caltech cognitive scientist Koch argues that consciousness arises from the chatter of interconnected networks of neurons. Check out the chapter on “the zombie within” to find out how often we operate automatically in the absence of conscious control.

Maia Weinstock


Forgotten Genius: The Biography of Robert Hooke 1635-1703

By Stephen Inwood; MacAdam/Cage, $28.50

Seventeenth-century London—a crowded warren of winding alleyways, wooden houses, pudding shops, and festering ditches—was also a city in scientific ferment. Harebrained schemes for flying machines and sheep-to-human blood transfusions shared equal footing with serious studies in optics, astronomy, and anatomy; scientific method was almost nonexistent. Into this muddled carnival of knowledge and hokum stepped a scientist named Robert Hooke. Few people remember him today, but Hooke was largely responsible for injecting experimental rigor into a pursuit then dominated by dilettantes.

The breadth of Hooke’s achievements is astonishing. He was a skilled architect who helped rebuild London after a great fire razed nearly the entire city in 1666; he invented the first practical spring-driven watch; he was the first to use a microscope for systematic research; and he was the first to understand that the lungs supply some vital essence to the bloodstream. But above all, he tirelessly advocated science—or natural philosophy, as it was then called—as the only reliable way to understand the world.

Given Hooke’s humble background, such an explosion of intellect is all the more amazing. In 1648, at the age of 13, he left his home on the Isle of Wight and headed for London after his father, a church curate, died. He soon earned an apprenticeship with Robert Boyle, the scientist whose famous law—deduced with the aid of an air pump that Hooke designed—describes the relationship between pressure and volume in an ideal gas. By 1665 the newly founded Royal Society had appointed Hooke curator of experiments, a position he held for most of his life. Inwood re-creates that life almost month by month, frequently miring the narrative in numbing minutiae. But an intriguing story unfolds nevertheless. Shortly after his appointment to the Royal Society, Hooke published his masterpiece, Micrographia, a 246-page treatise illustrated with his own beautiful and accurate drawings of fleas, fly wings, compound eyes, molds, and other wonders invisible to the naked eye. In the decades that followed, he speculated about continental drift, the shifting of Earth’s axis, and the extinction of species—all accepted facts today but fodder for mockery three centuries ago.

Hooke’s lifelong ambition was to be remembered as the foremost scientist of his time, but in this he was thwarted by a formidable contemporary: Isaac Newton. Hooke accused Newton of stealing his ideas about planetary motion and gravity, while Newton was convinced that Hooke was a braggart who made false claims to precedence. Inwood makes a plausible case that there was truth to both claims. Hooke’s ideas may indeed have inspired Newton, but Newton’s brilliant mathematical skills far exceeded Hooke’s, enabling him to move beyond intuition to revolutionary new theories. Yet even this decades-long dispute was punctuated by periods of calm. During one such lull in 1676, Newton acknowledged his debt to Hooke in a letter with words that have been quoted countless times: “If I have seen further,” he wrote, “it is by standing on ye sholders of Giants.”

Tim Folger


Courtesy of Sam Willard/Chabot

Dragon Skies: Astronomy of Imperial China

Chabot Space and Science Center

10000 Skyline Boulevard, Oakland, California

Through January 2, 2005

In A.D.1054 a dazzling light, visible even by day, appeared in the constellation Taurus. No one in Europe recorded it. Meanwhile, the technologically superior Chinese not only heralded the emergence of the “guest star”—a supernova whose cloud of gas debris remains as the Crab nebula—but also created various sophisticated astronomical gizmos that were marvels in their own right. A working model of one of these devices—a mechanical water clock and celestial observatory built by Su Song, a courtier of the 11th-century Emperor Zhezong—is on show in Dragon Skies, a touring exhibition now in Oakland, California, that documents 4,500 years of Chinese astronomy.

The original 35-foot-tall water clock housed three separate instruments: an armillary sphere, a system of nesting rings equipped with sights that, when aligned with reference points like Polaris, could pinpoint a star’s east-west and north-south position in the sky; a celestial globe, a spherical star chart with Earth at its center and stars marked on the surface; and a cuckoo clock, which announced the time with animated puppet figures. Water-driven motors turned the armillary sphere and the celestial globe so that their movements co- incided with the daily motions of objects in the night sky.

Sadly, the clock graced the imperial court for just 39 years before vanishing in the wake of an invading Jin army. Shrewd modern scientists used Su Song’s own detailed descriptions and drawings to create the one-quarter scale replica as well as an armillary sphere with which museum visitors can experiment. As they pivot the sighting tube on the rotating rings to spot the locations of constellations printed on a wall poster, they may feel the same thrill of discovery Su Song did nearly a millennium ago.

Elizabeth Svoboda


1. All Fishermen Are Liars: True Tales From the Dry Dock Bar

By Linda Greenlaw, Hyperion

2. Bush Versus the Environment 

By Robert S. Devine, Anchor

3. The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality

By Brian Greene, Alfred A. Knopf

4. The Last Run: A True Story of Rescue and Redemption on the Alaska Seas

By Todd Lewan, HarperCollins

5. The Secret Life of Lobsters: How Fishermen and Scientists Are Unraveling the Mysteries of Our Favorite Crustacean

By Trevor Corson, HarperCollins

6. Compass: A Story of Exploration and Innovation

By Alan Gurney, W. W. Norton

7. Crimes Against Nature: How George W. Bush and His Corporate Pals Are Plundering the Country and Hijacking Our Democracy

By Robert F. Kennedy Jr., HarperCollins

8. The Universe in a Nutshell 

By Stephen Hawking, Bantam

9. A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness: From Impostor Poodles to Purple Numbers

By V. S. Ramachandran, Pi Press

10. Math and the Mona Lisa: The Art and Science of Leonardo da Vinci

By Bülent Atalay, Smithsonian Books

Source: Barnes & Noble Booksellers


Beautiful Minds, Beautiful Music: A Concert and Symposium

Exploring the Music and Science Connection

Carnegie Hall, New York City, June 17, 2004

Physicist Richard Feynman was a dab hand on the bongo drums. Johann Sebastian Bach wove mathematical patterns into his majestic organ fugues. Albert Einstein was an accomplished violinist, and Aleksandr Borodin, the Russian composer of the

Courtesy of Dentsu Communications Inc.

Pianist Irene Sun charmed the audience at Carnegie Hall with a repertoire that included Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm” and Schubert’s second Impromptu.

opera Prince Igor, earned his living as a chemist. Much anecdotal evidence links scientific skill with musical talent, which is why the organizers of the 2003–2004 Siemens Westinghouse high school math and science competition were intrigued to discover that 62 percent of the finalists played musical instruments. So they invited four of the bright young things to perform—at Carnegie Hall.

The recitalists had won medals for projects ranging from the genetic engineering of corn to the design of a fractal-based computer program depicting an animated, Earth-like, three-dimensional globe. Yet all performed with the spontaneous grace of professional musicians. Harpist Heather Wood, now studying music and math at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, followed Handel’s Concerto for Harp in B Flat with a delightful Celtic air; pianist Elliott Prechter, an engineering student at MIT, thundered out Khachaturian’s Toccata; cellist Laurel Benson, a premed student at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin, accompanied her father (on the piano) in a dreamy Elegie by Fauré; and pianist Irene Sun, now studying biochemistry and Mandarin Chinese at Harvard University, closed the evening with a program that included an emotionally rich and deeply moving rendition of Chopin’s Berceuse.

Is this confluence of talent mere coincidence? Not according to Mark Jude Tramo, a neurologist who directs the Institute for Music and Brain Science at Harvard. In a panel discussion midway through the performance, he pointed out that overlapping areas of the brain are active in both musical and mathematical processing. Meanwhile Robert Duke, a music professor at the University of Texas at Austin, argued that both music and math involve a multiplicity of skills—such as interpretation of symbols and spatial relationships—that cut across wide disciplines. Brain imaging may one day settle the question, but in the interim, aspiring musical scientists take note: The deadline for entries for the 2004–2005 Siemens Westinghouse science competition is October 1.         

Josie Glausiusz


JeanieLite Escape Light

Hutchins Tool & Engineering Company

U2 Digital Ultra



Don Hutchins owns a precision tool company in Springfield, Massachusetts, that makes surgical instruments. After his friend Jeanie Roger, an attendant on American Airlines Flight 11, died when hijackers crashed the plane into the World Trade Center on 9/11, Hutchins decided to build a personal survival light that could help people escape from a burning skyscraper. His tiny 2-inch-high JeanieLite uses a 1-watt gallium nitride light-emitting diode powered by a 3-volt lithium ion camera battery that can hold out for 10 years before it is needed. The teal-green light beam (white is also available), concentrated by a collimator, is visible for at least a mile. The remarkably broad beam is ideal for evacuating smoky halls or darkened stairwells or reading a map. Machined from solid brass and then chrome- and nickel-plated, the elegant light sells for under $100.

For situations like the 2003 East Coast blackout, SureFire’s flashlight, the U2 Digital Ultra, punches out a blinding 100 lumens from its 5-watt LED. A ring allows the user to dial in six different intensities of output. The body is billeted from 6020 aluminum and anodized matte black. Although the U2 sells for a whopping $270, Discover editors believe it is likely to outlast 54 cheap $5 flashlights.

—Dan Dubno


The Molecular Gaze: Art in the Genetic Age

By Suzanne Anker and Dorothy Nelkin; Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, $45.00

Courtesy of Eduardo Kac

Alba, a luminous rabbit, owes her emerald tinge to an injection of jellyfish genes that code for green fluorescent protein. Or so claims Eduardo Kac, “the world’s first transgenic artist,” who created the gleaming green bunny in 2000 with the aid of French geneticist Louis-Marie Houdebine. In order to actually glow, though, Alba would need to be shaved and exposed to blue light with a wavelength of 488 nanometers—which is why some scientists suspect that she may simply be a cross between rabbit and Photoshop. Nevertheless, Alba reflects a growing artistic fascination with the realm of genetics—an odd marriage that finds ample expression in The Molecular Gaze, by artist Suzanne Anker and the late sociologist Dorothy Nelkin. Running the gamut from symbolic to corporeal, the book features scores of biocentric creations, from Marc Quinn’s squashy red sculpture of his 3-day-old son (molded from his wife’s placenta) to Kiki Smith’s delicate crystal sperm and Chris Buck’s moody portrait of a genuinely engineered animal: Dolly the sheep.  

Susan Kruglinski

Next Page
1 of 3
Comment on this article

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Collapse bottom bar

Log in to your account

Email address:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it emailed to you.

Not registered yet?

Register now for FREE. It takes only a few seconds to complete. Register now »