Ah, the holiday season. I’m taking more time this year than previous ones, because it had been a year since I’d seen my family. Plus the lab is empty, I won’t be getting some key reagents until after the New Year, and my new boss didn’t freak out over any of us taking a couple of weeks off–especially as he is on a different continent out of communication. The trip has gone much as expected. The train ride-our first on Amtrak-was long but fun. Family behavior is within standard parameters. And there isn’t any alcohol, though I could have used some this weekend. There was a surprise white Christmas, that was actually all snow and no ice with sufficient accumulation for a snowball fight and sledding.
One of the highlights was seeing my 2-year old niece on Christmas Eve. She’s pretty friggin’ adorable and hilarious. It was fun getting to watch her open presents. Rather than ripping open one and moving to the next as I fully expected, she’d open one and, after she had some help getting it out of the packaging (I mean really, do they have to make it so hard to toys out of the box?), she wanted to play and figure it out. It took coaxing to get her to open another present.
There were two that held her attention for quite some time. The first was a toy I recall fondly from my childhood: the Magna Doodle, or whatever they’re calling it now. If you were born before the era of this invention, you can write or doodle on it using a magnetic pen or stamps; then, you slide the little bar across the bottom and, like magic, your doodles disappear, leaving a clean space to doodle again. My niece was fascinated by this. She would use one of the stamps to black the entire field, then erase it, giving her dad a quizzical look, as though asking, “How’d it do that?”
The other big hit, much to my pleasure, was the Lift-Off Rocket Playset that Paramed and I gave her. Unbeknownst to me at the time of ordering, it was a fitting gift as her dad (my brother) in great geek fashion is already corrupting her. Earlier in the day, he pointed to a model of the Enterprise, NCC-1701-D (i.e. the one from Star Trek: The Next Generation) and asked her, “What’s that?” She clearly stated, “Starship.” And to think, he gives me a good ribbing about being a geek. Anyhoo, the little rocket makes sounds–which are different when it’s upright vs. on its side–and has compartments for the accompanying astronauts, space dog, and dune buggy, plus a crater and a three-eyed alien. It took all of about 10 seconds showing my niece the doors and sound button before she was moving everyone in the spaceship around, sending the dune buggy rolling, and chasing the dogs around the kitchen with the rocket in tow.
There was something about the way she lit up when she found something new or figured out how to make something work that made me smile. It reminded me of the pure joy of imagination and discovery–the true reason I decided to go into science. It’s perhaps one reason I’m fond of the story of the schoolchildren’s bee project, published in a Royal Society journal.
As Alom Shaha points out, science is a creative process. Sadly, because there is so much pressure that students perform well on standardized tests, much of primary and secondary level teaching is aimed at teaching students the answers to test questions and how to take such tests, rather than showing the beauty and fun that can be found in science.
And honestly, many of us “grown-up” scientists suffer from a similar plight. We become so focused on generating the correct hypothesis, gathering the data to support it, turning it into a publishable manuscript and fundable grant that we lose the wonder. It’s about objective measures of output, e.g. papers and money. We turn science into a formulaic practice, one where deviations from our expectations are met with exasperation instead of curiosity. But the truth is, there is so much in the systems we study that isn’t predictable, that doesn’t line up with previous presumptions. And that’s not a bad thing.
Don’t get me wrong. The scientific method–making an observation, then a prediction, and designing and conducting experiments to falsify the hypothesis–has its place. But rational thinking need not preclude creative thinking. Some of the greatest scientific discoveries grew out of a little creativity applied to accidental observations.
Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Science does not know its debt to imagination.” Perhaps I’ve already grown cynical, but the current system–at educational and research levels–rarely acknowledges or rewards imagination (a view shared by at least one other person, as Andrea Kusweski shares in this fantastic post). I, for one, want to keep the childlike joy of discovery and the imagination that goes with it, even when it comes to “serious” research. And I want to share that element of this science thing with my little niece as she gets older. I have no plans to turn her into a scientist (unless that’s what she wants ), but I do want her to know how much we owe to an inquisitive nature and creativity–maybe with the hope she’ll understand why I love and stick with a career that can be brutal at times.