Retaining Childhood Curiosity: Pluto & Scientific Achievements

15pluto2-sub-popup“We have a healthy spacecraft,” she said. Alice Bowman, the mission operations manager for the New Horizons Pluto mission reported that New Horizons’ systems are happy earlier tonight. But surprisingly, this wasn’t statement that struck me me most. In an interview following the news, Bowman reportedly made statements including “I can’t express how I’m feeling to have achieved a childhood dream,” and “tell your children…do what you’re passionate about.” (thanks to those who live tweeted this). 

I want to take a minute to highlight Bowman’s statements, because these sentiments allude to something I see often in the letters, memoirs, and papers of famous scientists: a recognition that a childhood attitude–one full of awe, wonder, and curiosity–can lead to scientific achievements.

I realize that this is an odd, non-fossil note. But really, it’s not. This idea of chasing childhood dreams–be it love of dinosaurs, fascination with the stars, what have you, is something that all science has in common. And after all, I’m a historian of science, therefore I very much appreciate when we get to witness such dramatic history in the making. I also am trained to look for patterns and connections, and here I see an important pattern.

I first noticed this when reading Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire. Not a scientist by training, I know–but no one can argue that Abbey had an appreciation for nature (and isn’t that what science is all about?). Anyway, in referring to the Delicate Arch in Utah, Abbey called it a “weird lovely fantastic object… which has the curious ability to remind us..

like rock and sunlight and wind and wilderness — that out there is a different world, older and greater and deeper by far than ours, a world which surrounds and sustains the little world of men as sea and sky sustain a ship.  The shock of the real.  For a little while we are again able to see, as a child sees, a world of marvels.  For a few moments we discover that nothing can be taken for granted, for if this ring of stone is marvelous all which shaped it is marvelous, and our journey here on earth, able to see and touch and hear in the midst of tangible and mysterious things-in-themselves, is the most strange and daring of all adventures.”

delicate_arch_sunsetI think of this quote often. And maybe it’s because I am looking for it, but I see this kind of idea pop up often among scientists. The idea that something about that childhood attitude makes a scientific career fun, fulfilling, and even successful. For example, marine biologist Rachel Carson though that her retention of childhood wonder for the ocean made her career meaningful and successful.

“A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood.”

What is it about retaining a childhood perspective that benefits scientists? It’s an awe that can’t be squashed, and a demand to have boundaries broken and questions answered at all costs. A childhood worldview, if retained, allows people to see past others who tell them something can’t be done. Because, as Bowman’s team showed tonight (along with many other examples in the history of science): it can be done.

Other than that refusal to take a simple answer, to hear a simple rejection, and the curiosity that keeps people up at night asking questions and retrying experiments–I don’t know why so many of us believe that retaining our childhood curiosity for the world around us is a crucial part of science. But I do know that this idea shows up again and again, in paleontology, in marine biology, and tonight in astronomy.m15-104

I may not have commanded a fly by of Pluto tonight, but I’m sure proud to be part of the primate species that made this happen. I’m proud of the scientific community as a whole tonight, and I’m especially proud to consider myself one of the individuals who has never let that childhood curiosity go.

And because Bowman encouraged people to pass this mentality on to their children, I’d like to take a second to say thanks Mom. Thanks for encouraging me to follow that awe, for making me dinosaur shaped birthday cakes and for staying so positive that obstacles appeared merely as tiny hurdles. Thank you for teaching me that the world is my oyster–even though it took me most of my life to figure out what that meant. Your support has allowed me to hold on to my childhood love of fossils and science, and for that I am so very grateful.

I can only hope that we can keep this going. Let’s keep arguing for funding, let’s work harder to communicate scientific results to the public. Let’s encourage young people to stay excited about science, and not let that energy dim as Rachel Carson noted it often does. Let’s keep up the momentum generated by the people who worked so hard for so many years to make this happen. Thank you New Horizons crew. Onward!

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