The J Curve

Friday, October 15, 2004

Childish Scientists

In the comments to the Celebrate the Child-Like Mind posting, a wonderful quote came from Argentina:

"I know not what I appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore” – Sir Isaac Newton

Of course, this observation does not apply just to the Newtonian physicists. The September issue of Discover Magazine observes: “Einstein had the genius to view space and time like a child,” as with his thought experiments of riding a light-beam. "His breakthrough realization of the relativity of time turned on a series of mental cartoons featuring trains and clocks. General relativity, his theory of gravity, started off as a meditation on what happens when a man falls off a roof."

And the fantastic physicist Feynman (the first person to propose nanotechnology in his 1960 lecture “There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom”) is especially child-like: "When Richard Feynman faced a problem he was unusually good at going back to being like a child, ignoring what everyone else thinks and saying, 'Now, what have we got here?'" – The Science of Creativity, p.102.

For a humorous aside, the T.H.O.N.G. protesters remixed Feynman as "Plenty of Room at This Bottom."

Lest we think that childishness is reserved for physicists, I am reminded of my meeting with James Watson, co-discoverer of the DNA double helix. His breakthrough technique: fiddling with metal models and doodling the fused rings of adenine on paper. I like this summary: “Watson can himself be quite the double helix – a sharp scientific mind intertwined with a child-like innocence.”

How far can this generalize? In Creating Minds: An Anatomy of Creativity Seen Through the Lives of Freud, Einstein, Picasso, Stravinsky, Eliot, Graham, and Gandhi, the author “finds a childlike component in each of their creative breakthroughs.”

This final quote reminds me of a wonderful echo of Michael Schrage’s claim that reality is the opposite of play:

“One thing I have learned in a long life: that all our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike – and yet it is the most precious thing we have.”
– Albert Einstein


  • Hi there at the sandbox!

    Steve, I am happy to see that you liked the quote, and honored that you used it here in your new post. Funny thing that you finish it with one from Einstein... the one I instantly remembered along with the Newton´s one when I read your post. Spooky! as you say ;-)

    This play topic brought a lot of ideas and connections in my mind and once I put them in some comprehensible order I will come back with them. My wonderings started at the etimology and meaning of the word "play" (I always "play this game" of finding the origin of words to get answers or tracks from their definitions). =)

    Play means basically to perfom, to act out, to represent, to do "as if", to imitate. Imitation is the the way of learning par excellence living creatures have. So there is a connection between playing and learning. Moreover, to act out like actors do, tell us that Play implies the capacity of putting ourselves in different imaginary escenarios and behave as if we were someone different from who we actually are. This flexibility (plasticity) to represent, counts with the "a priori" of understanding that we CAN perform, play for a while a different role, within a different realm that our current one, this is: reality.

    Hence, this line of thinking leads me to disagree with the opposition between reality and play. Play is not immersed in reality, on the contrary, I dare say that reality is the game we play constantly, being our identity the part we are more used to play in this game we call "Life".

    Reality is a game we play. The broader one. The universal. Like in the Matrix? (sorry I didn´t see the movie!!!) As the people who study NLP Neurolinguistic Programming say: The map IS NOT the territory.

    Play another part in your Life game and you will change your reality. To appear to be different doesn´t mean that you are actually changed, but can help a lot to start your engines. If you want to learn to do something, imitate a model. Learning will become a lot more easier than trying to learn reading the theory about it. Play as if you already knew what to do, look like the masters look like. You will be more close to call that current playing your future "reality".

    Now I gotta go back to my Lego. ;-) Children use Lego and toys, adults use words, numbers and symbols... We never stop playing.

    Thanks for listening. Kiss!

    By Blogger Gisela Giardino, at 6:24 PM  

  • It is great to hear from the great scientists of the world how they observed themselves. We all recognize their greatness, but do we listen ?

    What is it what they mean when they talk about "the child-like mind" or when they say "playfull" ? Does this mean we have to study our children ? Copy how they discover the world ? Or are they telling us more about how we try, and try, and try, through accumelating knowledge to search for the unknown. The explanations we seek.

    I believe they tell us that we can not push the limits of our knowledge, by studying what has been discovered in the past. Of course we can come up with great applications of this knowledge, even to our benefit. But discovering something really new, or being creative and inventive in a sense that leads to new ideas. I agree with the great scientists. They clearly observed within themselves that they pushed science by "denying" what has been discovered before them. Probably even "denying" their status, culture, and conditioning. They were able to "look" into the future only by letting these things go, becoming a child again who does not have the burden of conditioning. Who is free, to think in any direction and therefore walk into the unknown, the future. Discovering.

    I will finish with a quote as well, one that Einstein quoted himself, I don't know who originaly wrote this but:

    "Education is that which remains, if one has forgotton everything learned in school"

    Have a great weekend,


    By Blogger Joost, at 2:13 AM  

  • I can't keep up with you pro-bloggers with your links, et al. Sorry.

    The innocent and play.

    When we find ourselves there, in the vast territory and play, we are driven to that place of no-expectations. I can’t spell his name but it was Werner Van Braun who said, “There are children on the streets who could solve some of my most difficult equations because they are not cluttered with all of this garbage.”

    Back years ago, I ran into a tape recording that just sort of came my way entitled "The Toy Comes First." No longer recall the author. It jogged my thinking and began looking at toys in a new way. Play. That's what engages.

    So, back in 85, or thereabouts, an invitation from the American Anthropological Society (I think that was their name.) came asking as to whether I’d give a talk on how the toy shapes the future. The conference was in Chicago.

    So, in that talk I played with a Transformer. Remember those toys? My thesis was that these toys shape the interior stuff of the next micro-generation and in the end the technology that is the toy really shapes the technology of the adult.

    I may never visit this blog again. If you have any comments, etc. you can post them and at the same time, contact me at

    Peace, Bill

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:31 PM  

  • One more great quote...

    "Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up." - Pablo Picasso 1881-1973

    Posted by Justin Guariglia in Tokyo

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:51 AM  

  • 10-24-2004: it´s 3 hs since I saw The Matrix for the first time. I am still in shock and feeling kinda sick... As if intoxicated with a parade of a million coincidences, intuitions and truths condensed in movie format. :-O

    Sorry, had to share.

    By Blogger Gisela Giardino, at 7:42 PM  

  • Ah, the disorientation from first entering the contruct program....

    By Blogger Steve Jurvetson, at 7:53 PM  

  • Indeed, Amitabha Steve. I feel still sick... The following may be of your interest as it was of mine. I´d like to know your thoughts on it.

    Is the lost chain between the soul, mind and body finally beginning to be deciphered?

    Interview to The God Gene author: The brain chemistry of the BuddhaPlus:: Study: Brain Chemicals Key to Spiritual ExperienceMy own experience / intuition / perception / low serotonin levels =) tell me we are on track. That we are at the threshold of a New Eon. The Eon of One. Look! you can form "Neo" (= new) with those 3 letters as well... SPOOKY!!! ;-)


    By Blogger Gisela Giardino, at 8:40 AM  

  • And what are we humans but primates in delayed childhood?

    "Unlike the early human adult skull, with its sloping forehead and prominent jaw, the modern human skull-with biologically insignificant variations-retains into maturity a proportionately large size, in relation to the rest of the body, a high-rounded dome, straight- planed face, and reduced jaw size, all closely resembling the characteristics of the skull in the juvenile chimpanzee"

    By Blogger Philosophistry, at 11:09 PM  

  • Philip: I think you will like the survey by the eponymous John Smart on this topic. Here’s a selection:

    “the neotenic hypothesis states that humans are, at least in their cranial anatomy, biologically juvenile (or "neotenic" ) forms of today's chimpanzees. In other words, developmental genes and growth processes of various types have been deliberately stunted in the human being, producing a less mature form by comparison to our close chimpanzee relatives….

    In its divergence from our chimpanzee relatives, our species made the evolutionary choice to become less developmentally differentiated at birth, possibly as our most easily accessible way of gaining greater behavioral capacity and lifespan brain plasticity. The other alternative, changing our basic brain plan to achieve greater intelligence and learning capacity, was simply not available to us, because that developmental lineage is a legacy/path dependent system. Development can add new structures on top of the old (like the cortex added on top of the midbrain), and experiment with stunting or accelerating the growth of developed structures (this is called "heterochrony", or development at a different time/rate). It can also experiment with developing structures at somewhat differing locations within the organism (this is called "heterotopy" or development in an "other place"). But development cannot reinvent the organism from the ground up, as it has all kinds of legacy structures that must be preserved for life to continue….

    We probably achieve these feats mostly by slowing down and delaying closure of several neural developmental processes that both run faster and finish earlier in chimpanzees. In effect our brains have taken a developmental step backward (less neural differentiation early on in the life cycle) by comparison to our ancestors, and this involves "hetero"-crony, or the choosing of an "other"-time to finish a developmental process.”

    Back to the Scientists, here is:

    Einstein’s Blog: Don't be a Bohr.

    “Sometimes I ask myself how it came about that I happened to be the one to discover the theory of relativity. The reason is, I think, that the normal adult never stops to think about space and time. Whatever thinking he may do about these things he will already have done as a small child. I, on the other hand, was so slow to develop that I only began thinking about space and time when I was already grown up.”
    --Al EinsteinThe first Comment to Einstein’s posting comes from the American novelist, E.L. Doctorow (speaking at the Aspen Institute):

    “Hidden in this remark is an acceptance of himself as an eternal child. This prodigy of thought was eternally a child prodigy. And if that would seem to diminish the man, remember that it was a child who cried out that the Emperor had no clothes. All his life, Einstein would point to this or that ruling thought and reveal its nakedness, until finally it was the prevailing universe that had no clothes.”

    Einstein was also a photoblogger. It helped him capture the referential frames when riding a light beam. ;-)

    By Blogger Steve Jurvetson, at 1:11 PM  

  • Steve, delighted that the virtues of playfulness are being appreciated in the VC heart of the Valley... Let me alert you to my new book, The Play Ethic (, which proposes a whole new social and economic framework based on the power of play . Available on, and coming to the US soon.

    By Blogger pat, at 4:59 AM  

  • Steve,

    An interesting observation about childlike minds and scientists. My first ever blog so I hope everyone appreciates this effort.

    Discoveries are made when the mind is the least hindered by societal assumptions, rules and doctrines that are wrong. The mind that has taught itself that it can’t fly freely because someone says they not allowed to, will not fly.

    Thus the mind of a child is at its most innocent and the least encumbered by preconceived notions and prejudices. Anything is possible if you can imagine it.

    Many society doctrines we are told to live by are usually imposed on us or are accepted in error. They limit the mind. They limit the questions that lead us to discovery. They even go as far as to punish us for thinking. They limit our possibilities.

    The quote from Alison Gopnik’s Scientist in the Crib that "Babies are just plain smarter than we are, at least if being smart means being able to learn something new.... They think, draw conclusions, make predictions, look for explanations and even do experiments…. In fact, scientists are successful precisely because they emulate what children do naturally."

    Now I have not read the book but in my assessment and personal experience, the child is smarter than adults are because they are able to see all the possibilities, with fewer limiting assumptions that may be wrong to begin with that would leave the adult to a wrong conclusion. Yes, the conclusion can be as simple as the emperor has no clothes, which for many, can be earth shattering.

    My biggest discovery as a PhD scientist came when I stopped thinking the better known scientists were right about my system and when I started questioning their assumptions for my system.

    The way back to a childlike mind is to question all the assumptions…question what we believe to be true and make our own journey to find the truth.

    And that mind must be exercised so that it doesn’t atrophy. I don’t mind being a kid again now at how I look at life. It’s pretty awful to think like a normal adult. So limiting. Now to think like an adult child is more interesting since there is experience and savvy to offset the innocence and simplicity.


    By Blogger doctorpearl, at 8:31 PM  

  • Right on, Pearl!

    By Blogger Steve Jurvetson, at 4:22 PM  

  • A great etimology. A splendid statement about childhood and prejudice. What a wonderful thread.

    I can only contribute two favorite aphorisms from Beyond Good and Evil:

    "With the strength of his spiritual eye and insight grows distance and, as it were, the space around man: his world becomes more profound; ever new stars, ever new riddles and images become visible for him. Perhaps everything on which the spirit’s eye has exercised its acuteness and thoughtfulness was nothing but an occasion for this exercise, a playful matter, something for children and those who are childish."

    "A man's maturity consists in having found again the seriousness one had as a child, at play."

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:27 AM  

  • Just as these scientists are like children, a child may be a scientist.

    My son, Ainan Celeste Cawley, six, is a scientific child prodigy. His mind grasps concepts deeper, knowledge rarer, ideas greater than any adult I know. I hope he retains these "childish" gifts as he grows up. If he succeeds in doing so, he may join the ranks of scientists who achieve something worthwhile.

    As corroboration of what has been said in these posts, Ainan shows the exploratory, unprejudiced quality shown by the famous scientists mentioned. Fingers crossed that he retains it as an adult.

    By Blogger Valentine Cawley, at 4:52 AM  

  • I just came across this delicious nugget from ten years ago:

    "ABSTRACT: INVESTIGATIONS about why we reject novelty as we age. The writer, a professor of neuroscience at Stanford University, irritated by his young administrative assistant’s eclectic taste in music, tested whether there any maturational time windows during which we form cultural tastes. He and his research assistants called oldies radio stations, sushi restaurants in the Midwest, and body-piercing parlors and asked the managers when their service was introduced, and how old their average customer was. They found that if you’re more than thirty-five years old when a style of popular music is introduced there’s a greater than ninety-five per cent chance that you will never choose to listen to it. For sushi restaurants, the window of receptivity closed by age thirty-nine; for body-piercing, by twenty-three. The findings were reminiscent of studies that show that creativity declines with age. These studies also indicate that great creative minds not only are less likely to generate something new but are less open to someone else’s novelty. Einstein, in his later years, fought a rear-guard action against quantum mechanics. Psychologist Dean Keith Simonton has shown that the decline in creativity and openness among great minds isn’t predicted by age so much as by how long people have worked in one discipline. Scholars who switch disciplines seem to have their openness rejuvenated. That may be because a new discipline seems fresh and original, or because a high achiever in one discipline is unusually open to novelty in the first place. Or maybe changing disciplines really does stimulate the mind’s youthful openness to novelty. Or it may just be that established generations resist new discoveries because they have the most to lose by them. The explanation is not neurological: in most brain regions there isn’t any dramatic neuron loss as we get older, and there is no such thing as a novelty center in the brain. Given that aging contracts neural networks and makes cognition more repetitive, it would be a humane quirk of evolution if we were reassured by that repetition. There may even be some advantage for social groups if their aging members become protective archivists of their cultural inheritance. But the writer remains dispirited by the impoverishment that comes with this closing of the mind to novelty. If there’s a rich, vibrant world out there, he figures it’s worth putting up a bit of a fight, even it means forgoing Bob Marley’s greatest hits every now and then."

    — Robert M. Sapolsky, Investigations, “Open Season,” The New Yorker, March 30, 1998, p. 57

    By Blogger Steve Jurvetson, at 5:24 PM  

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