“We have a healthy spacecraft,” Alice Bowman announced on the evening of July 14, 2015. Bowman, the operations manager for the New Horizons mission, was commenting on the incredible flyby of Pluto, a flyby that gave humans a closer view of the planet than we had ever seen before. In an interview following the historic flyby, Bowman made a comment that struck me. She said, “I can’t express how I’m feeling to have achieved a childhood dream.”
With this statement, Bowman alluded to a phenomenon I often hear scientists mention in their letters, memoirs, and papers: that childhood dreams about science can come true. Importantly, for many people, these dreams are a key ingredient to doing science. Be it paleontology, marine biology, or astronomy, scientists often mention their childhood dreams when they achieve big things, and they stress the importance of hanging onto that childlike awe, wonder, and curiosity.
A Child’s World: Full of Wonder
Marine biologist Rachel Carson saw this in her study of the sea, claiming that it was her retention of childhood wonder for the ocean made her career meaningful. The perspective of children was more clear, truer than an adult’s. “A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement,” she wrote. The problem, she felt, was adulthood. “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.”
Carson was extraordinarily concerned about this dimming of excitement concerning the world around us. She begged others to teach children to maintain this unique worldview, writing,
If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children, I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantment of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.
A World of Marvels
A childlike wonder certainly helps us in understanding geology as well, many have argued. Edward Abbey (not a scientist, exactly, but whatever) expressed a similar sentiment about Utah’s famous rock arches, calling the Delicate Arch “weird lovely fantastic object” that has the ability to remind us 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. 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.”
For these authors, childhood dreams and childhood perspectives of the world around us were crucial to understanding the history of this planet and our place in it.
Science as Adults
But what is it about retaining a childhood perspective that benefits scientists? Why is it so important to researchers like Carson? Because, I would argue, science is hard. Really, really hard. The road to successful Pluto missions is paved with failures. Failed experiments, rejected grant proposals, and heaps of scornful peer review. Faced with the difficulties inherent in the process of science, researchers need a twinkle of awe to get through it all, it seems to me. That twinkle allows them to refuse to take a no for an answer, to give up on the next round of experiments, to keep asking questions and pushing boundaries.
A childhood worldview, if retained, allows people to see past others who tell them something can’t be done. This is important because, as Bowman’s team showed (along with many other examples in the history of science), it can be done.
After reflecting on her own childhood dream that night in 2015, Bowman added a piece of advice to those listening to the historic accomplishment, “tell your children…do what you’re passionate about.” This is important, of course. Incredibly important. But is it enough? Given the constant obstacles to conducting science, given the “boredom and disenchantment of later years,” is a childhood passion enough to keep moving forward? How do we encourage the retention of these young dreams and perspectives of awe and wonder?
Many scientists have pointed out that–especially in the case of underprivileged or marginalized groups–the narrative of “get them excited about science” is misguided. The excitement is there. The young girls, like I once was for example, who love dinosaurs and digging in the dirt, are there. The question is how do we keep such groups in science, given structural flaws that often work against them.
I hope that history helps in some small ways. By spotlighting people who worked hard for many years to make Pluto landings happen, we see that the failures along the way might be worth the ride. Scientists who stuck with it–whether looking out to the stars, underground, or towards the sea–have occasionally seen their childhood dreams come true.
What about you all? Did your love for science come from a young age? Do you see it in your children? Do you feel that it’s an important thing to be nurtured, and do you have suggestions about how to accomplish such a task? Let me know in the comments!